After a summer spent laying the groundwork, candidates across Maryland are launching their campaigns this week.
From fiercely fought legislative races to the lively governor's contest at the top of the ticket, the onslaught of television, mail and seemingly ubiquitous political signs is about to begin in earnest. Political operatives say they expect a more intense effort in an attempt to pierce voter apathy and a pervasive distrust of candidates in both parties.
"The battle plans are now in effect," said Republican political strategist Chevy Weiss. "Everyone has now shifted into a different mindset. Everyone's really, really, really moving forward, full steam ahead."
"The intensity level increases," said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist with SKD Knickerbocker. "Voters tune in."
Without competitive congressional races, political experts said, the high-profile tussle for the governor's mansion and fights for control of local government and General Assembly seats will set a Maryland-centric tone in the days leading to the Nov. 4 election.
More than one-third of incumbents in the House of Delegates are not seeking re-election, and the political churn has opened new battlegrounds as Republicans and Democrats try to seize the other party's strongholds.
The county executive posts in two key suburban jurisdictions — Howard and Anne Arundel counties — have competitive contests that have spurred intense fundraising. Combined, the candidates in those races currently sit on $1.2 million to spend enticing voters.
State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, meanwhile, has amassed over $578,000 in his campaign account and has an opponent who hasn't raised enough to trigger reporting requirements. During Miller's seven-term reign as the chamber's leader, he has earned a reputation for distributing cash to fellow Democrats in need.
The most expensive gubernatorial primary contest in state history — the Democrats spent more than $21 million— has left the party with a large and sophisticated statewide campaign infrastructure, which officials have restaffed and begun to reactivate.
Democrat Anthony G. Brown plans a 10-fold increase in his field staff, aides said. Last week, the campaign posted a Craigslist advertisement seeking door-knockers and phone-bankers, offering a symbolic $10.10 a hour in a nod to Brown's support for raising the state's minimum wage.
Saturday was designated a "Day of Action" to deploy his 300 volunteers and staff across the state.
"We spent the summer organizing those folks, so that when the average person gets back and starts the normal cycle of the fall, we're ready," said Justin Schall, Brown's campaign manager. "It's like when a pitcher warms up before the game."
The Republican Party has taken on the responsibility of being the surrogate fundraiser for nominee Larry Hogan, who accepted public financing and the candidate spending limits that go with it.
A GOP-commissioned poll suggesting a competitive race for governor has encouraged Republican Governors Association chairman Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to headline a Hogan fundraiser this month. Republicans expect more national party leaders from Washington to visit the state on Hogan's behalf.
Democrats also anticipate national heavy-hitters to stump for Brown, whose election would make history as Maryland's first African-American governor and only the third African-American ever elected governor in the nation.
Hogan planned a five-stop tour across the state this weekend, and the campaign plans to double its satellite campaign offices from 13 to at least 24 over the next few weeks. His team has purchased more than 200 tablet computers for volunteers to use while door-knocking and phone-banking to allow the campaign to keep detailed records. It plans to buy at least 200 more, Hogan campaign spokesman Adam Dubitsky said.
Both gubernatorial candidates have sharpened the talking points they'll use against their opponent. Voters can expect to hear Brown's refrain that Hogan would take the state "backwards," while Hogan intends to portray Brown as "incompetent."
Brown's camp will continue to push access to pre-kindergarten as a key campaign issue, while Hogan's plans to be unrelenting in accusing Brown of weakening the state's economy.
John T. Willis, author of a book on Maryland politics and an executive in residence at the University of Baltimore, said all candidates' efforts this year will be complicated by an increasingly fractured media environment. When voters get information from fewer traditional news sources, he said, candidates have to be more creative to get attention.
"Candidates are going to be desperately trying to get media to cover them," Willis said. "Voters are going to hear more. A campaign is going to try to touch a voter five to seven times. Repetition is important, and it will intensify."
Attracting volunteers has also become more challenging for the parties than ever before, said Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party.
"Politics have soured for people," he said. "People are less inclined to put their heart and soul into a campaign. People are just not excited to put in their blood, sweat, tears into getting someone elected."
Some of the most bitterly fought races will be in the House of Delegates, which will have its largest freshman class in two decades. A confluence of retirements and competitive primaries means 48 of 141 incumbents won't be seeking re-election.
Leaders in both parties are working overtime helping newbies craft their campaigns. Democrats say they have a realistic shot at taking six seats that Republicans won four years ago, including races in Howard, Baltimore, Frederick and Caroline counties, as well as Western Maryland.
Republicans say they could take five seats from Democrats, including posts in Southern Maryland and Baltimore County.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, called Baltimore County the biggest battleground. "We're going to invest enough money to sweep some of those districts," he said.
Among Busch's targets: the county's newly redrawn District 8 northeast of Baltimore. The three-delegate district features an open seat, one held by a Democrat and another currently filled by Republican Del. John Cluster, father of the GOP's executive director.
Republicans, meanwhile, are eyeing District 6, which includes Dundalk and has only one incumbent — a Democrat — on the ballot. The district hasn't elected a Republican legislator in decades, but GOP strategists hope their economy-centric campaign themes will resonate in wide-open races.
And Republicans, at least, intend to rely on candidates in down-ballot races like District 6 to campaign alongside the gubernatorial nominee at the top of the ticket.
"This time, I think it's a bottom-up approach," Cluster said. "You'll see that in a lot of competitive districts. That's extra manpower that Larry doesn't have to worry about."