For nearly a week Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has been saturating the state with at least $1 million in television ads touting his claims that he has made Maryland a more affordable place to live.
Democratic challenger Ben Jealous disagrees. But he apparently can’t afford to counter the barrage.
The candidates will have to reveal their fiscal hands this week as campaign finance reports are due Tuesday. Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford reported more than $9.3 million on hand before the June 26 primary. Jealous and his running mate, Susan Turnbull, had less than $400,000
The disparity should be worrisome to Democrats, experts say.
“If [Jealous] were on fire with voters, he would probably be bringing in the money to do the advertising that he needs to do,” said Donald F. Norris, professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Flush with cash, the Republican governor is running a 30-second spot touting his tax-cutting prowess in virtually every TV outlet in Maryland — broadcast and cable, Baltimore and Washington, Salisbury and Hagerstown. And if some stray Maryland voters don’t turn on the tube, there’s a chance they will run across the campaign ad on Facebook.
Melissa Deckman, a political scientist at Washington College, said the ad is effective.
“It tells his story very well,” she said. “It’s sort of a no-nonsense, bare bones ad, but that’s Larry Hogan.”
The Jealous campaign declined to discuss its TV strategy except to confirm it has no spots running now. But Kevin Harris, a senior adviser, took issue with the Hogan ad.
"No matter what Larry Hogan says, the facts are clear Maryland is not more affordable for working families,” Harris said. “Health care premiums have increased, prescription drug costs are skyrocketing and wages for working families have not grown quickly enough to keep up.”
The positive portrayal of Hogan comes after Jealous endured harsh, negative ads from the Republican Governors Association that labeled him as a free-spending socialist.
Norris said the one-two punch of a positive Hogan campaign and negative RGA ads is likely taking a toll on Jealous’ underdog campaign in a heavily Democratic state. Even though Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in Maryland, Hogan enjoys high popularity and leads Jealous in several polls.
Hogan’s campaign won’t say precisely what it’s spending on what it’s calling its first general election TV ad — even though its previous ads that aired before the primary election had no purpose other than to win in November since the governor did not face a GOP challenger in June.
The ad, which the campaign calls “Affordability,” sounds familiar themes and builds on the narrative that carried Hogan to victory in 2014. It starts with a smug-looking image of former Gov. Martin O’Malley, telling viewers that Hogan’s Democratic predecessor “raised taxes over 40 times.”
Reprising the 2014 campaign theme, it then cuts to a woman saying: “They had raised our taxes to the point we were considering moving out of the state of Maryland.”
A tie-less Hogan comes on screen and says: “We were the only state in the nation to tax the rain and we eliminated the rain tax.”
Then a photo of a drenched man standing in the rain appears on the screen with a headline behind him reading, “Gov. Hogan repeals rain tax.”
It moves on to a segment about the lowering of tolls that were a centerpiece of Hogan’s first year in office — and arguably one of his moves that cemented his high popularity levels as measured in years of polling.
A woman identified as a single mom from Kent Island, where tolls are a critical concern, comes on screen to talk about how saving $25 makes a difference.
Hogan returns: “We have not had a single tax increase the entire time that I’ve been governor and we’ve cut taxes four years in a row.”
On the screen, with the Bay Bridge in the background, flashes “$1.2 billion in tax, toll and fee relief.”
The first woman returns, saying, “We want to stay here, grow our business here, because of Governor Hogan.”
Deckman said the ad represents a “smart strategy.”
“It’s kind of his greatest hits,” she said. “He even brought back the rain tax, which is incredibly misleading.”
While Hogan campaigned relentlessly against the stormwater management fee in 2014, it never literally taxed the rain. Nor did Hogan win a full repeal of the tax. The governor secured a compromise bill that made the fee optional for the affected counties, but it still exists in some form in some of them.
The ad is misleading in other ways as well. While Hogan has cut taxes, fees and tolls, the $1.2 billion figure he has used since his re-election campaign began is inflated. Most notably, it includes $240 million in tax refunds that were the result of a Supreme Court decision in a case brought long before Hogan became governor.
But if Jealous has the resources to dispute Hogan’s claims on the air, he isn’t deploying them yet.
“The fact that he is not on the air right now is letting the other campaign define him,” Deckman said.
Norris said he’s never seen a Democratic candidate for governor with so little in the way of a TV presence. He said he takes it as a sign that Jealous is having a hard time raising money, given polling showing him far behind.
“He clearly isn’t on fire with the voters,” Norris said. “The fact that the Democratic Governors Association is staying away from him says something.”
Meanwhile, the Jealous camp could only complain the Hogan ad isn’t addressing the future.
“Larry Hogan should have the courage to tell voters what his plans are to solve these real problems and why after four years, he hasn’t delivered,” Harris said.