It might seem counterintuitive, but constantly speaking ill of your political opponent can work to his advantage. And that might be what's happened in the Maryland gubernatorial campaign between Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the Democratic candidate, and real estate executive Larry Hogan, the Republican.
Brown and the Democrats have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to portray Hogan as a corporate shill with extreme views on social issues and guns.
If you've watched any television over the past few weeks, you've likely seen ads claiming that Hogan is "too dangerous" for Maryland. The strategy: Portray Hogan as a right-winger who, if elected governor, would repeal all progress achieved in Annapolis since the Civil War.
As if that could even happen with a legislature dominated by Democrats.
Maybe, in 30-second bites delivered frequently, this will work to Brown's advantage.
But it could backfire, too.
I base this on instincts and on what I've heard from numerous Democrats, including some of the state's most prominent. They find it strange that, instead of trumpeting his own positives, Brown has chosen to go negative on Hogan. And not just a little negative, a lot.
The Goucher Poll, conducted Sept. 28 to Oct. 2, found that 45 percent of Marylanders didn't know who Hogan was; they had neither a favorable nor unfavorable opinion.
No surprise there: Hogan might have made money from real estate, but he's not exactly Creig Northrop when it comes to name recognition in Maryland.
Hogan Companies provide real estate services to landowners and developers of commercial and residential properties. The concern calls itself "the leading land firm in the state," with $2 billion in transactions since the mid-1980s.
Unless you conducted business with Hogan on a land deal, or unless you were a Maryland Republican paying close attention, you probably would not be familiar with the guy.
So it's also no surprise that, before the June primaries, a Washington Post poll showed an 18-point advantage for Brown over Larry Who? in a hypothetical match-up.
But now a poll taken for The Baltimore Sun, conducted after Goucher's and published today, shows Brown with just a 7-point lead.
How has Hogan closed the gap?
There are a lot of theories. Here's one of mine:
Brown's negative ads helped establish Hogan's name in households where it didn't exist and made voters wonder if Hogan could be as bad as alleged.
People are sick of super-partisanship in politics. Even Democrats and independents might be wondering why Brown, Mr. Nice Guy, went negative, out of the box, on Hogan.
Brown has so many advantages — in party affiliation and money, incumbency and name recognition — why would he worry about a Republican who was unknown by nearly half the electorate?
Voters in Virginia's 7th Congressional District might have wondered the same thing about Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader.
Despite having numerous advantages, Cantor ran a negative campaign against his lesser-known opponent in the Republican primary.
Cantor lost to Dave Brat, a college professor, in a major upset.
Cantor had several issues working against him — remarkably, not being conservative enough, for one — but his negative advertising was a factor. It certainly increased Brat's name recognition and gave him more credibility.
Something like this has happened in Maryland.
There's another reason why the race between Brown and Hogan is closer than we expected: Brown does not offer sufficient defense of the progressive policies that make Maryland a far better state than Hogan would have us believe.
Several times during last week's televised debate, Hogan used the words "worst" or "one of the worst" or "disaster" to describe various aspects of life in Maryland. He used his camp's inflated claim of "40 consecutive tax hikes" to suggest that Marylanders are overtaxed and that the Democratic establishment has returned nothing to citizens in return for the increased revenue.
Just once, I'd like to hear Brown stand without shame and say:
"If things are so bad in Maryland, why is Mr. Hogan still doing business here? I'll tell you why: Despite the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression and despite federal cutbacks in spending, life here is far better than my opponent claims, and he knows it. Maryland is still the wealthiest state in the country and the third-best-educated, according to the Census Bureau.
"The Tax Foundation ranks us right next to Virginia and Pennsylvania in the percentage of our incomes we pay in state and local taxes. We could do better, but we're not among the worst.
"Taxes? Look, we don't like taxes, either. Who likes taxes? We'd cut them if we could, and we'll cut them if we can. But if you want a decent quality of life, good schools, good roads, public transportation, affordable colleges, clean rivers and a cleaner Chesapeake, a vigilant public health system, then we need to pay for it. It doesn't happen otherwise."
A little more of that from Brown and his base might be more excited about him — instead of wondering why he's so worried about the other guy.
Dan Rodricks' columns appear Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is also the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.