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Hogan's unforced error [Editorial]

The back-and-forth between the campaigns of Republican Larry Hogan and Democrat Anthony Brown on Wednesday provided a good preview, just hours after the polls closed in the primary, of what the race for governor is going to be like. Mr. Hogan released a quickly produced, web-only ad attacking Mr. Brown as incompetent and blaming him for the tax hikes and rise in unemployment that occurred during his eight years as lieutenant governor. And the Democrats and Mr. Brown's campaign quickly responded by trying to make the conversation about something else.

The ad is a rif on the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" ads — itself, not an original idea in Maryland politics, as Comptroller Peter Franchot had already used it in an ad to publicize his office's unclaimed property list — with Mr. Brown starring as the "Most Incompetent Man in Maryland." It hits themes that should be pretty familiar to those who have been paying attention to Mr. Hogan's campaign — Mr. Brown's role in overseeing the failed launch of the state's health insurance exchange website; the doubling of the number of unemployed Marylanders during the O'Malley administration; and his help to "raise taxes 40 times in a row," including the so-called "rain tax." The ad ends with an image of Mr. Brown and his running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, flexing their muscles for the camera with the tagline, "Stay uninformed, my friends."

The Maryland Democratic Party was quick to respond. Not by disputing the facts alleged in the ad. Not by critiquing Mr. Hogan's record of accomplishment, or by pushing back on the "rain tax" theme that was so popular in the Republican primary. Instead, the party focused on that last picture.

What Messrs. Brown and Ulman were doing was "Zaching" — that is, mimicking a pose made popular by Zachary Lederer, a college student from Howard County who died this year of cancer. A photo of him flexing his muscles during treatment sparked an Internet meme of others doing the same thing in a sign of respect and support. The Democratic Party and the Brown campaign accused Mr. Hogan of seeking to make political hay out of a young man's tragic death.

The Hogan camp insists that it had no idea of the context of the photo and would not have used it if it had. They provided a link to a part of Mr. Brown's Facebook page on which it was posted without any explanation.

Assuming that's true, and we have no reason to believe otherwise, the use of the photo still amounts to an unforced error by the Hogan camp. Mr. Hogan's strength so far has been his ability to keep the campaign focused on the economy and not on things the Democrats might prefer to discuss, like abortion or gay marriage. Talking about Zaching instead of taxes gives the Democrats a quick and easy way to shoot down what was otherwise an effective ad that delivered its punch with humor.

There's another warning sign for Mr. Hogan in this early dust-up. The last time a Republican won a governor's race here, it was a contest between a dyed-in-the-wool Marylander (complete with Arbutus accent) in the form of Bob Ehrlich against a Democrat, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who came across as something of an outsider. Mr. Hogan's roots in Maryland are actually much deeper than Mr. Brown's, but it certainly doesn't seem like it when his campaign displays ignorance of a Maryland cultural phenomenon that was huge on social media and the subject of more than a dozen articles in The Sun. Zachary Lederer was the manager of the University of Maryland men's basketball team; here's betting Mr. Ehrlich would have known all about it.

This ad won't decide the election — and frankly, the Democrats' objections gave it far more exposure than it otherwise would have gotten; views increased eight-fold after the party's press release went out. But in order to win, Mr. Hogan can't afford even little mistakes.

The Brown campaign, meanwhile, shouldn't get too cocky. The fact that many of Mr. Hogan's attacks were field tested in the Democratic primary by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler to little effect doesn't mean they won't stick in a general election. In particular, Mr. Brown needs to push back on Mr. Hogan's "rain tax" nonsense. Maryland does not tax the rain. It has directed its 10 most populous jurisdictions to raise revenue to pay for stormwater management upgrades that will prevent pollution from choking the Chesapeake Bay, per federal environmental regulations. The longer Mr. Brown lets Mr. Hogan get away with mocking the "rain tax," the more he risks losing control of that issue just as Mr. Hogan lost control of the conversation about his latest ad.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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