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Ads in governor's race are narrow, negative

Anthony Brown campaign ad screenshot
(Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore Sun

Less than six weeks before Election Day, the candidates for governor are flooding the airwaves with apocalyptic messages about the dire consequences of choosing the other guy.

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The ads warn that Republican Larry Hogan is "dangerous," while Democrat Anthony G. Brown is "just not ready to be governor." But they give viewers little information on how either man would govern. Both campaigns are focusing on a remarkably narrow range of attacks, hammered home through constant repetition.

Past gubernatorial campaigns in Maryland have hardly been genteel affairs, but some veteran observers believe this year's race is shaping up as more relentlessly negative.

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"It's something we hadn't seen much in Maryland in the past," said St. Mary's College political scientist Todd Eberly. "It is sort of the national polarized approach in politics where the other side is the enemy that must be destroyed before they destroy you."

From Brown ads, a viewer can learn that he supports offering prekindergarten to all Maryland families who want it, and that Hogan wants to give big tax cuts to corporations instead.

From Hogan, voters learn that Brown shares the blame for a supposed mass exodus of businesses and individuals from Maryland during the O'Malley administration.

Brown's ads also charge that Hogan would seek to block women's access to abortion and birth control — charges Hogan has branded as lies.

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Hogan, meanwhile, tells citizens that Brown is almost single-handedly responsible for the failure of Maryland's health exchange. Brown says the real news is the gains Maryland has made in signing up the uninsured.

Apart from that, the political discourse has been remarkably thin on substance, according to observers in both parties. That's a shame, critics say, especially because the candidates and their supporters are spending tens of thousands of dollars a week in Baltimore alone — more than $100,000 in Brown's case — on ubiquitous television ads.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch is well-regarded by Maryland liberals and a staunch supporter of Brown, but he's not been satisfied with his candidate's message so far.

"The Democratic Party and the leadership should rightfully be talking about the world-class university system we've built over the last eight years by lowering tuition costs and attracting the best and the brightest," Busch said. "I'm certainly supportive of pre-K education, but I think the future of Maryland in job creation is the investment in ... higher ed we've already made."

Richard Vatz, professor of political communication at Towson University and an outspoken conservative, would like to see an end to Democratic rule in Annapolis, but thinks Hogan's message has featured counterproductive ridicule of his opponent.

Vatz praises parts of Hogan's message as effective, but sees the Republican as going back and forth between a sunny Ronald Reagan-like image and a darker demeanor reminiscent of Richard Nixon.

"When you're conflicted between Reagan and Nixon, you've got to go Reagan," Vatz said. Rather than call Brown a liar, as Hogan did in a recent news conference, Vatz would like to see the Republican counter the lieutenant governor with a deft touch.

"He ought to say, 'I'm not dangerous. I'm just dangerous to bad policies,'" Vatz said.

For some issue advocates, the campaign has offered little to catch their interest.

Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club, said he hasn't seen much on environmental issues from either candidate — except for some brief clips in Hogan ads deriding stormwater cleanup fees as the "rain tax." While his organization backs Brown, he'd like to see the lieutenant governor spell out his policies in his ads.

Tulkin said it's especially important that the candidates make clear how they stand on climate change, noting that an estimated 400,000 people gathered in New York last weekend to demand action against manmade pollution linked to higher temperatures.

"Whether the lieutenant governor or Hogan gets into office, they will need to address these issues. And it will be much easier to deal with it if it's been an issue during the campaign," Tulkin said.

Jim Russ, president of the Maryland Transportation Builders and Materials Association, said he hasn't seen much at all on the critical issues of highways and transit.

"I don't see clarity on either side on our issues," he said.

Instead, the candidates pound on a narrow range of issues.

Brown's most persistent theme in television ads has been that Hogan wants to deny pre-K to children while promoting $300 million in "corporate giveaways," a figure extrapolated from the estimated cost of a Republican-sponsored tax cut bill. While Hogan has denounced the charge as false, Brown has refused to withdraw his ads.

Justin Schall, Brown's campaign manger, defended the tone of his candidate's message.

"Campaigns should be about a comparison of ideas," he said. "Larry Hogan has consistently refused to talk about his agenda and his policy proposals on the campaign trail."

Schall said campaigns are limited in the number of issues they can address on TV because of the high cost of commercials but predicted voters will see Brown touch on more themes before the election.

"There are five more weeks of campaigning left and we'll talk about a lot of issues in that time," he said.

Adam Dubitsky, a Hogan campaign spokesman, said the GOP campaign has been focused on "the consequences of the last eight years," which he describes as massive tax increases, job losses and other economic setbacks.

"Our opponent has yet to issue a positive ad and he's focused on dishonest attacks, distortions, decades-old quotes on issues that have long since been settled," he said.

Dubitsky said that in the four weeks until early voting begins Oct. 23, the Hogan campaign will "remain focused on Larry's plan to roll back taxes, get spending under control and grow the economy."

Eberly expects the campaigns to emphasize exciting party-base voters rather than persuading those in the middle. Brown has the easier job, he says, since registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, and the lieutenant governor is expected to have more money to spend.

"Brown can win by making people just not want to vote for Hogan," Eberly said. "He doesn't have to make people want to vote for him."

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