The Republican Governors Association is pounding Ben Jealous with attack ads — and has no plans to stop.
The deep-pocketed GOP organization, which is backing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, spent about $1 million on television ads last month to brand the Democratic nominee “tax-and-spend Ben Jealous” who would “blow a Chesapeake Bay sized hole” in the state’s budget and “destroy our economy.”
That’s more spending on media in a month than Jealous spent during his yearlong primary campaign.
On Wednesday, the Republican governors said they planned to continue the TV assault with another large ad buy that will stretch throughout August. In the new ad, the association calls Jealous “too extreme for Maryland,” and suggests Democrats are abandoning him.
Association spokesman Jon Thompson said the statewide campaign will be “similar” in size to last month’s buy.
“Maryland can't afford Ben Jealous as governor, and even Democrats know it,” Thompson wrote in an email.
But if Jealous is hoping his party’s version of the Republican Governors Association — the Democratic Governors Association — will return fire, he might be waiting a while. So far, the attacks by the GOP governors have gone unanswered by their Democratic counterparts.
The Democrats say they do plan to help the Jealous campaign, but they’re not running ads yet. They say they’re waiting until later in the campaign.
Democratic Governors Association spokeswoman Melissa Miller said the Republican assault on Jealous indicates Hogan must be scared of his challenger. Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland by more than 2 to 1.
“Larry Hogan is one of the nation’s most vulnerable incumbent governors, and he and the RGA know it,” Miller said. “Hogan is running scared because he knows that Maryland voters want a governor like Ben Jealous who’ll stand up to Donald Trump and grow an economy that works for Maryland families.
“The DGA views Maryland as a significant target for Democratic pickup this November.”
Jealous said the attack ads show weakness on the part of the Republicans. The former NAACP president said such tactics are typically deployed by the losing side lashing out in the final weeks of a race.
“This is what it looks like when we’re starting to win,” Jealous told supporters at a recent event in Baltimore. “We said if Larry Hogan starts running attack ads before Labor Day, it means he’s scared.
“He started running them before the Fourth of July. That means he’s very scared.”
It isn’t Hogan who’s running the ads. By law, candidates’ campaigns are prohibited from coordinating with outside political groups on independent expenditures such as advertising buys.
Hogan’s campaign referred questions about the ad campaign to the Republican Governors Association.
The popular governor, who is trying to become the first Republican governor to win re-election in Maryland in more than 60 years, already enjoys a significant cash advantage over Jealous.
Hogan and his running mate 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 pricey ad buys from the Republican governors are only adding to Hogan’s financial advantage. A Baltimore Sun review of recent ad buys shows the RGA has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Baltimore market on WBAL-TV, WBFF, and Verizon cable stations. Current spending totals at least $1 million, partial public records show — and more ads continue to be purchased.
John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, said Democrats could be making a grave mistake by waiting to counter the Republican barrage.
“You have to define yourself before your opponent defines you,” Dedie says. “Social media is all well and good. But if they don’t get on TV with ads, this race is going to be over by the middle of September …
“If you ask the average voter what they know about Ben Jealous right now, they know what they see in the RGA ads,” Dedie said. “These ads are on local issues, taxes and spending. These ads will have an impact.”
He said Hogan’s strong approval ratings, which have reached as high as 75 percent in Maryland, could be scaring off outside money.
“Part of the reason they haven’t countered is they don’t have any money,” Dedie said. “I think some see Hogan at 70 percent and they don’t want to make the investment.”
Dedie said Hogan could still be undercut by animosity in Maryland toward Republican President Donald Trump.
“What if it’s October 15th, Trump wakes up and decides to fire Robert Mueller?” he asked.
Donald F. Norris, professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, called the RGA ads “very effective.”
“I’m very surprised the Democrats are not countering them,” Norris said. “If they go on for two months, they will cement the narrative that Ben Jealous is a radical tax and spender.”
Norris said there’s a reason campaigns go negative — and it’s not always desperation.
“We know attack ads work,” he said. “And we know you can’t let an attack ad go unanswered.”
Even so, Norris said, sometimes a better-financed campaign can make the mistake of raising a lesser-known opponents’ name recognition through negative ads.
Norris pointed to Hogan’s upset victory over Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown four years ago.
“Larry Hogan had no name ID whatsoever, but his name ID was raised through Anthony Brown’s attack ads,” Norris said. “The same thing could happen here. The ads could [anger] Democrats so much they go out and vote in higher numbers.”
Hogan was able to counter Brown’s negativity with a more positive message. His stepdaughter Jaymi Sterling defended him against attacks that he was anti-women in a well-received response ad.
“Dad encouraged my sisters and me every step of the way,” Sterling said. “He loves this state, almost as much as he loves us. He’ll make a great governor.”
Norris said Jealous needs to respond similarly.
“I think it’s foolish on the part of the national Democrats that they’re not supporting him more strongly,” he said. “They stand the risk of allowing Hogan’s surrogates to create the narrative.”
The Maryland Democratic Party says the Republican Governors Association is attempting to “mislead” Maryland voters on behalf of wealthy donors.
Maryland Democratic Chairwoman Kathleen Matthews points to the $8 million the GOP association has received in the past two years from health insurance companies and pharmaceutical firms, which she says have a vested interest in preserving America’s current health care system.
Jealous has proposed a single-payer system in Maryland in which doctors and hospitals would bill the government, not insurance companies, for health care services.
Democrats say the GOP ads don’t tell the whole story. The latest spot, for example, repeatedly quotes Jealous telling an interviewer: “Go ahead, call me a socialist.” It leaves out Jealous’ next sentence: “That doesn’t change the fact I’m a venture capitalist.”
The ads also cite the conclusion of a nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services analysis that a single-payer health care system could cause $2,800 fees to be levied against every person in the state. But they don’t mention that the fees would replace payments Marylanders now make to private insurance companies, which could result in many residents saving money, according to the estimate.
Martha McKenna, a Democratic strategist who works on political television ads, said she thinks the Republicans are worried about a “blue wave” in November as a backlash over Trump’s presidency.
McKenna said Hogan has not done enough to distance himself from Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Maryland.
“The RGA has no choice,” she said. “Since Hogan has failed to stand up to Trump, their only option to get him re-elected is to tear down Ben Jealous.”