Down-ballot races helping to drive turnout in lackluster primary

Steven Turner isn’t terribly excited about voting for governor this year.

The Baltimore man was motivated, however, to visit the polls Thursday to vote for Marilyn J. Mosby in the Democratic primary for state’s attorney. Turner said Mosby saved the city from rioting three years ago when she charged police officers in the death of Freddie Gray.

“She’s a good woman,” Turner, 51, said after casting his ballot during early voting at the Westside Skill Center in Edmondson Village. “Those kids were burning the city down. If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have no city.”

During an often sleepy Democratic primary for governor — the six major candidates agree on most issues — Maryland primary voters find themselves in an unusual position this year. Many are finding that the most compelling, heated and, frankly, interesting races are located further down the ballot.

“People ask me about the delegates’ race and the state’s attorney’s race,” said Mark Parker, pastor of Breath of God Lutheran Church in Highlandtown.

And the Democratic primary for governor?

“I know very few people who are all in for any of those candidates,” he said.

Turnout during early primary voting, which started Thursday, is up this year from 2014, the year of the last gubernatorial election. Analysts say competitive down-ballot races — for county executives, state’s attorneys, the General Assembly and Congress — are driving voters to the polls.

Contested primaries in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are in some cases drawing more attention, energy and money than some leading candidates can muster in the race for governor. Analyst say higher interest in those races could help gubernatorial candidates from those jurisdictions — County Executive Rushern Baker in Prince George’s, for example, and state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno in Montgomery.

The winner of the Democratic primary will challenge Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in November. Early voting continues through Thursday; Primary Election Day is June 26.

Candidates for Baltimore state’s attorney and Baltimore County executive have made more television ad buys in Baltimore than some leading gubernatorial candidates. Candidates in Montgomery and Prince George’s have been airing ads on the major stations in the expensive Washington market, while most of the gubernatorial campaigns have not.

Former Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, an executive in residence at the University of Baltimore School of Public and International Affairs, studies voter turnout.

“Some candidates in Prince George’s and Montgomery are spending more than the governor’s race,” he said. “There are contested primaries in Baltimore County, too. The turnout in those jurisdictions should be higher than four years ago.”

Two factors push voters to the polls, Willis says: Competitive races and big issues.

“Competition drives turnout,” he said. “But I don’t know there’s a lot of issue difference in the gubernatorial primary.”

Campaign spending in the Democratic primary race for governor is down significantly from four years ago. The six major candidates have spent about $7.4 million so far. At this point four years ago, the three major Democrats had spent about $10 million.

But local races are making up the difference.

County Executive candidates Jim Brochin in Baltimore County, David Blair in Montgomery and Angela Alsobrooks in Prince George’s have each spent nearly $1 million.

Harry Fox, a retired lawyer from Pikesville, expects more Baltimore County voters to cast ballots in the county executive race than four years ago. The seat is now open; in 2014, Kevin Kamenetz was running for re-election.

“It’s an extremely capable field,” said Fox, 73. “I think there’s widespread interest.”

In Democrat-dominated Montgomery and Prince George’s, voters said they were motivated to come out by hotly contested races for county executive and County Council.

At an early voting center in Laurel on Friday, signs for candidates in Prince George’s County races were many. Signs for the gubernatorial candidates were few.

Dels. Joseline Pena-Melnyk and Ben Barnes, both seeking re-election, were at the site to greet voters.

Pena-Melnyk said she was there for the first day of early voting, too.

“Not one person asked about the governor’s race,” she said.

Barnes agrees.

“The gubernatorial race is not exciting people,” he said. “There’s something missing.”

The scene was similar at an early voting site in Burtonsville in Montgomery County. Ben Davis passed out literature for Democratic council candidate Danielle Meitiv.

Davis said there’s enthusiasm to vote — just not for governor.

“I think a lot of Democrats have decided that Hogan is going to win anyway,” he said. “I think it’s the county executive race that’s really bringing people out.”

The open county executive seat has drawn six Democrats; four at-large county council seats have drawn 33 candidates.

“Almost everyone you bump into knows one or two of the candidates,” Davis said.

Turnout jumped 53 percent on the first day of early voting. More than 31,000 people cast ballots, up from about 20,000 four years ago.

The increases were largest in those jurisdictions with high-profile races. Voting in Prince George’s County more than doubled, from 2,727 voters to 5,615. Baltimore, Baltimore County and Montgomery County all saw large increases as well.

Early voting has increased in every election since Maryland adopted it in 2010 as election officials have expanded the number of centers.

Willis and others say higher-than-usual turnout for competitive down-ballot races could benefit gubernatorial candidates who run strongest in those counties. More voters in the competitive race for Prince George’s County executive, for instance, should mean more voters for Baker, who is running for governor after eight years in that job.

Baker could benefit from the race between Alsobrooks, former Congresswoman Donna Edwards and state Sen. Anthony Muse.

Similarly, Madaleno could enjoy a boost from competitive races in Montgomery, where county executive, county council and a rare House seat are all open.

“Rich certainly wants a heavy turnout in Montgomery County,” Willis said.

John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, contrasted the debates in the governor’s race with those for Baltimore State’s Attorney and Baltimore County Executive.

“The governor’s race is so boring on the Democratic side,” he said. “They all sound alike. They haven’t differentiated themselves.

“In the state’s attorney’s race, there is a difference. There is a lot of polarization around Marilyn Mosby. You also have a competitive race for Baltimore County Executive, where you have candidates who are really different.”

He said he’s not surprised down-ballot races are drawing more interest.

“If you have to choose between two football games to watch, you’re going to watch the one that’s competitive.”

When Mileah Kromer goes running in South Baltimore, she sees many signs for local races, but few for candidates for governor. Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said it would be highly unusual for down-ballot races to drive turnout.

“Normally, it’s the top-of-the-ticket races that drive turnout,” she said. She said the gubernatorial candidates could do more to make the race entertaining.

“People should be excited to watch the debates,” she said. “If you want to be the governor, you need to know how to throw a punch.”

Gubernatorial candidates have long struggled to draw the level of interest that presidential candidates attract. Primary turnout four years ago, when both parties held contested primaries for the open gubernatorial seat, was less than 22 percent. In 2016, a presidential election year, it was 41 percent.

The election of Republican President Donald Trump — who is deeply unpopular in Maryland — has made Democrats hopeful of a blue wave of backlash at the polls.

Gubernatorial campaigns have launched complex operations to try to drive up turnout. With a crowded Democratic field, analysts say it’s likely to take an unusually small number of votes to win the primary — as few as 125,000, less than it takes to win some county executive seats.

A Baltimore Sun-University of Baltimore poll this month showed former NAACP President Ben Jealous and Baker tied with 16 percent in the race for the Democratic nomination. Madaleno, and lawyers Jim Shea and Krish Vignarajah were tied at 4 percent. Forty-four percent of voters were undecided.

Jealous has held a series of “Get Out The Vote” rallies with high-profile politicians and celebrities. He has the support of unions with more than 100,000 members — roughly half of the total of votes he believes he needs to win — and a team of 80 to 90 union members has been dispatched to knock on doors in Baltimore and Baltimore County. A team from Casa de Maryland is making phone calls for him in Spanish.

He launched his get-out-the-vote operation last week with a pair of rallies led by comedian Dave Chappelle, a childhood friend. On Thursday another celebrity friend, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, joined Jealous at an early voting center in Silver Spring.

He has scheduled events in the Washington suburbs with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris.

“Every vote we take from Baker in Prince George’s is one he has to make up somewhere else,” Jealous spokesman Kevin Harris said.

Baker is featuring former Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, who dropped out of the race on Wednesday and endorsed him.

She has been using her position as a Baker surrogate to attack Jealous. At a rally this week, Ervin called the California-born Jealous a “carpetbagger;” Baker, she said, is a “stalwart son of Maryland.”

Madaleno, who polled at 4 percent, is seeing encouragement in the turnout in Montgomery County. Requests to vote by absentee ballot there are up 8 percent, more than any other jurisdiction.

“The campaign that turns out their voters will win,” said Keith Presley, Madaleno’s campaign manager. “Our campaign has been able to recruit the volunteers necessary to cover polls during early [voting] and on Election Day, man the phone banks across the state, knock on hundreds of thousands of doors and use cutting-edge technology to send direct messages to voters. …

“Every campaign will say that they have built the same operation [but] it is clear which counties are performing.”

Shea, the former chairman of the Venable law firm, said his volunteers are knocking on thousands of doors and making thousands of calls each week. He’s appointed county captains in most jurisdictions to help get out the vote.

Shea, who is running with Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, hopes a surge in the Baltimore market will provide a path to victory.

“We are concentrating our efforts most heavily in Baltimore City and County, as well as Montgomery and Prince George's to an extent,” spokeswoman Kathryn Gilley said.

Vignarajah, a former policy director for first lady Michelle Obama, said she expected to outperform the polls. She pointed to races in other states — including Texas, Idaho and Maine — in which women finished ahead of their poll numbers.

"Our campaign has groups of dedicated volunteers working all over the state to knock on tens of thousands of doors and make contact (through phone, text, literature, or in person) with more than 500,000 voters by election day, focusing on the women, young people, and people of color who make up our core base across the state,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Waickman wrote in an email.

One candidate was taking a different approach. While others attempt to turn out the vote, tech entrepreneur Alec Ross is focused on persuasion, campaign manager Shaun Daniels said.

Daniels said his team will be focused in the days before the primary election on picking up new supporters, not getting existing supporters to the voting booth. He pointed to the high number of undecided voters.

“Anyone who seriously thinks the path to victory is get out the vote is seriously misguided,” he said. “This will be persuasion to the very end.”

Sun reporters Erin Cox, Michael Dresser and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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