Ben Jealous’ 10-point victory over Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker in Tuesday’s Democratic primary was much stronger than the tight polls in the race had suggested. He won every county except two (Prince George’s and neighboring Calvert), showing a strong turnout operation state-wide. And his win came amid strong progressive stirrings in Maryland, showing that voters (at least Democratic primary ones) have a taste for change.
But beating Mr. Baker and the rest of the Democrats is one thing. Beating Gov. Larry Hogan — he of the 70 percent approval rating and $9 million campaign account — is another matter entirely. Mr. Hogan is not only the incumbent. He is not only better known than anyone Mr. Jealous has run against so far. He’s also a far better campaigner. This isn’t going to be easy.
Putting aside for the moment the question of whether Mr. Jealous should beat Mr. Hogan (we’ll wait until a lot closer to November to render judgment on that one), it’s worth asking whether he can. All the public polling to date suggests Mr. Hogan starts with a massive lead — but not an insurmountable one. If Mr. Jealous is going to make a real race of it, here’s what he needs to do:
Convince voters that his promises aren’t pie in the sky.
Mr. Hogan isn’t being cagey about his strategy against Mr. Jealous. His campaign blasted out a series of emails within minutes after the Democrat declared victory, and it posted a web attack video this morning. The theme: Ben Jealous is “risky” and “extreme.” In particular, the Hogan campaign is highlighting Mr. Jealous’ Bernie Sanders-style promises of a single-payer health care system and free college tuition as too expensive and too radical for Maryland.
During the primary, Mr. Jealous used those issues like dog whistle calls to the Sanders wing of the state Democratic Party — they instantly branded him as a certain kind of politician. His stock line was to say that people accuse him of making big promises but that he specializes in getting big things done. Inspiration was the name of the game in the primary, but for the general, he needs to break those proposals down into more manageable ideas. If you read his position papers, Mr. Jealous outlines a much more incremental approach to achieving his goals than his campaign rhetoric would suggest. Now it’s time to start getting into details.
Lock down Democratic support.
Mr. Baker, ever gracious, conceded defeat Tuesday night and pledged to do whatever he could to help Mr. Jealous defeat Governor Hogan in November. Rep. Elijah Cummings popped up at Mr. Jealous’ victory party. Mayor Catherine Pugh, who has cultivated a relationship with Mr. Hogan and had thus not previously touched the governor’s race with a 10-foot pole, showed up, too. Mr. Jealous needs to turn that election night bonhomie into boots on the ground. Four years ago, Democratic nominee Anthony Brown — already an establishment favorite — failed to cultivate the relationships necessary to get fellow elected Democrats to work hard for him in the general election. Mr. Jealous, an outsider, needs to calm the Democratic leaders who are nervous about him and turn them into enthusiastic champions of his cause.
Move to Baltimore County.
Baltimore County has been on the winning side of each of the last four competitive gubernatorial races. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won big there in 2002, and Mr. Hogan did the same in 2014. If Mr. Jealous can at least make the race there close, he’s got a shot. Governor Hogan dodged a bullet with the nomination of moderate Republican Al Redmer in the county executive primary over Trumpian Republican Pat McDonough, but Mr. Jealous can point to good signs there, too. The most progressive candidate on the Democratic side, John A. Olszewski Jr., holds a narrow lead at the moment, and Mr. Jealous racked up a huge margin there. It’s not foreign turf for a progressive candidate. And there’s clearly some energy on the Democratic side; more total votes were cast in the Democratic primaries than the Republican ones in the three County Council districts now represented by Republicans.
Get under Governor Hogan’s skin.
This may be a tough one. Governor Hogan has cultivated an image as someone above the partisan fray — a calm, steady leader who gladly works across the aisle in contrast to what goes on in Washington. He has not always been so disciplined. Particularly early in his term, Mr. Hogan took his share of swipes at Democrats, so the instinct is there, if at this point deeply buried. Reminding voters that Mr. Hogan is in fact a politician might be a more effective way to tarnish his brand than attempting to tie him to President Donald Trump, which has so far only worked to the Republican governor’s advantage by making him look reasonable by comparison.
Be Mr. Maryland.
Mr. Jealous’ time as the leader of the national NAACP and his connection with Mr. Sanders has already helped him pull in an impressive roster of national political figures to campaign for him. (Being childhood friends with comedian Dave Chapelle didn’t hurt either). Now that he’s the nominee, he can command even more star power — and more out-of-state campaign cash as Democrats look to take back a governor’s mansion they see as rightly theirs. He should be cautious about that. During the primary, his opponents tried to brand him as a carpetbagger, and Mr. Hogan is already accusing him of trying to make Annapolis just as dysfunctional as Washington. Running against a Republican whose deep ties to Maryland are a big part of his appeal, Mr. Jealous needs to emphasize his own familial ties to the state and his connection to Baltimore. In particular, he needs to keep working to cultivate small- and big-dollar donor relationships in Maryland. He’ll need the national money, but he can’t afford to look like he’s a tool of national political interests rather than a champion of Marylanders.
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.