What the candidates for lieutenant governor tell us about the fight to beat Larry Hogan

Gubernatorial candidates like to talk about their choice of a running mate as if it were really consequential. They pitch their No. 2s as partners in governance and proof of their ability to make good and responsible decisions. And without exception, they try to pick someone who will enhance their electoral prospects. The truth? There’s little evidence that the selections make much difference in either governance or campaigning. They usually tell us much less about who is going to win or what kind of administration they would run than it does about the state of Maryland politics, and this year, the picks tell us a lot about what Democrats think it will take to beat Gov. Larry Hogan.

Diversity

It’s a given now that gubernatorial tickets in Maryland will not be a pairing of two white guys. The last time a serious white male gubernatorial candidate from either party picked another white man was 1990. This year, almost without exception, the gubernatorial tickets feature both racial and gender diversity. Tech entrepreneur Alec Ross is the only white candidate to pick a white running mate in Montgomery County businesswoman Julie Verratti, though she provides diversity of another sort in that she’s gay. And Baltimore lawyer Jim Shea picked another man in Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, though he adds a generational diversity to the race. (One announced Democrat, Krish Vignarajah, has yet to name a running mate, though unless she selects a fellow Sri Lankan woman, she’ll continue the diversity trend, too.)

The conventional wisdom that a lieutenant governor pick needs to nod toward Maryland’s strikingly diverse electorate was cemented in 2002 when then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend picked Admiral Charles R. Larson — a white man and former Republican — as her running mate. The selection was widely panned (except by this editorial page, though more later on how we got things wrong that year) and offered a stodgy contrast to then Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s selection of Michael Steele, who was both African-American and notably charismatic, as his lieutenant governor candidate.

This year, reaching out to women and minorities is even more crucial, since Democrats’ greatest hope is that anti-Trump sentiment, which runs strong in both of those segments of the Maryland electorate, will produce a wave of voters looking to punish anyone with an “R” after his or her name.

Geography

With the exception of the Shea/Scott ticket, every other pairing on the Democratic side includes someone with ties to the Baltimore region and someone from the Washington suburbs. Take, for example, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. of Montgomery County who selected Luwanda Jenkins, a long-time government official from Baltimore who has ties to Governor O’Malley and a roster of contacts in the region through her work for the Greater Baltimore Committee.

The reasoning for geographic balance is pretty simple: To beat Mr. Hogan, a Democrat would need to run up his or her vote totals in Baltimore City and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties — the so-called Big Three of Maryland Democratic politics — and blunt Mr. Hogan’s expected edge in the Baltimore suburbs and Baltimore County in particular. That was the crucial battleground in all of the recent competitive gubernatorial races in Maryland, and it will be again.

That’s part of why Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker picked Baltimore attorney Elizabeth Embry, who probably would have won the Baltimore City mayor’s race if it had been decided by the voters of Baltimore County. And it’s part of the reason Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz picked Valerie Ervin, a former member of the Montgomery County Council, to run with him.

The big ‘get’

Another purpose of a running mate selection is to send a signal of strength to the rest of the field. Tapping a rising star, and particularly someone who has to put his or her own political career on hold, is a sign that a candidate has real momentum. The best example of that in recent memory was then-Mayor Martin O’Malley’s pick of then-Del. Anthony G. Brown as his gubernatorial running mate in 2006. Mr. Brown had a golden resume — he was a Harvard educated Army veteran just back from Iraq — and checked the right boxes in geographic and racial diversity. Both Mr. O’Malley and then-Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan were courting him, and his willingness to put his own promising legislative career on hold was widely seen as a vote of confidence in Mr. O’Malley’s prospects.

In 2014, Mr. Brown had his own big “get” in then-Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who was term limited in his job and considered a viable gubernatorial contender in his own right. He also came with a hefty dowry in his campaign accounts. Even Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, despite running behind in the polls and in party support throughout his run that year, convinced a sitting legislator, Del. Jolene Ivey, to give up her seat to run with him.

Not a single Democratic candidate got anyone to do that this year. Mr. Scott is the only current elected official among the running mates, and because city elections are on the presidential cycle, he loses nothing and, worst case scenario, raises his profile should he choose to run for mayor or some other office in the future. Some of the other candidates are giving up jobs, at least temporarily — including Ms. Embry and Ms. Ervin — but that’s not the same as putting a political career on hold. The absence of such partnerships this year suggests doubts among Democratic up-and-comers that anyone is going to beat Mr. Hogan this year.

Ideological imbalance

The idea behind the Kennedy Townsend-Larson pick was that he would help her appeal to political centrists or even conservatives. That didn't work out, and few are trying that approach this year in a sign of how potent the progressive wing of Maryland’s Democratic Party has become, particularly in the primaries. Mr. Kamenetz has made some progressive moves in recent years on housing segregation and other issues, but in general he comes from the moderate or conservative end of the Democratic spectrum. In his running mate, he picked someone he pitched as bringing a diversity of thought to the ticket, and that she does; Ms. Ervin has recently been involved in pushing causes like paid sick leave and a $15 minimum wage that would not fly in Towson. Mr. Baker emphasized how similarly he and Ms. Embry look at the world, but what she adds is progressive policy wonkery.

Something of an exception is former NAACP CEO Ben Jealous’ pick of former state Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Turnbull as his running mate, which was seen as a bid to build a tie between his outsider candidacy and the state Democratic establishment. He was (and still is) Team Bernie, she was Team Hillary. But it isn’t as if she has a record of stances on issues that contrasts with his.

Who’s the best pick?

The best running mate selections in recent memory were Messrs. Steele, Brown and Ulman. Notwithstanding the dismissive treatment he received from The Sun’s editorial board at the time, Mr. Steele was an excellent campaigner (both as a running mate and in his own right as a Senate candidate in 2006) who had great chemistry with Mr. Ehrlich and reinforced the notion that their ticket represented a different kind of Republicans. Mr. O’Malley’s ability to bring Mr. Brown onto the ticket reflected the swagger, focus and determination of his effort to unseat Mr. Ehrlich. Mr. Ulman brought top-of-the-ticket experience and talent to the campaign.

(Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, Mr. Hogan’s running mate last time and this, is an able and experienced government official and an asset to the administration. But, with all due respect, campaigning is not where his natural talents lie.)

Mr. Steele, Mr. Brown and Mr. Ulman weren’t a deciding factor in their races, and none of the picks this year are so clearly strong as those three were. Ms. Embry, for example, brings Baltimore connections but also baggage. Mr. Baker may have admired the moxie of her mayoral run, but Catherine Pugh sure didn’t, and her presence on the ticket may make it less likely that she would endorse Mr. Baker. (If she is inclined to endorse anyone at all, which is far from a given.) Ms. Turnbull, a former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, to some degree reinforces the sense that his is a national campaign rather than one deeply rooted in Maryland. Ms. Ervin’s former employer, Maryland Working Families, sent an email Thursday reiterating that it actually supports Mr. Jealous.

So who is the best this year? On balance, we’d say Mr. Shea’s pick of Brandon Scott. It represents a doubling-down on a Baltimore-centric campaign, which might not be the best strategy in either the primary or general election. There’s no indication that it has catapulted Mr. Shea into the top tier of candidates. But Mr. Scott is the only running mate this year who will make voters think differently about a gubernatorial candidate, and that’s probably the best thing such a selection can accomplish.

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