Both candidates did what they needed to do in the one and only debate in Maryland’s 2018 gubernatorial race, and that’s better news for Democrat Ben Jealous than it is for Gov. Larry Hogan. They both gained what they could out of this encounter, but that meant much more for the challenger than it did for the incumbent.
There were no knockout blows in the occasionally testy and freewheeling exchange, and neither candidate committed a major gaffe. But Mr. Jealous showed himself capable of sharing the stage with his much better known rival, and that should give Democrats some confidence that they aren’t headed toward the kind of embarrassing blowout that the poll numbers to date have suggested might be possible. It’s far too early to say whether this event amounted to the major turning point in the race that the Jealous campaign suggested in its post-debate spin, but it definitely offers him something to build on.
None of that it to suggest that Governor Hogan performed badly. Quite the contrary; he was at turns genial, sharp-witted, compassionate and straightforward. He contested Mr. Jealous on the facts about his record and made the case that the Democrat’s policies on health care, taxes and, particularly, criminal justice were extreme and even dangerous.
Nor was Mr. Jealous’ performance perfect. He mentioned, but did not hammer home, his most popular policy proposals, such as a $15 minimum wage and legalizing recreational marijuana for adults. And his attempts to tie Mr. Hogan to the unpopular President Donald Trump lacked sharpness; he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to beat up on Mr. Hogan for joining Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on a trip to read to elementary school children in Maryland.
But he did a few things well. He manufactured opportunities to tell his own life’s story and that of his family, which has deep roots in Maryland and connections to the civil rights struggle here. He cast doubt on Governor Hogan’s central claim that he led an economic turnaround in the state after the Gov. Martin O’Malley years by unfavorably comparing the growth in jobs and wages here to that in the region and nation. Governor Hogan countered by claiming Mr. Jealous’ numbers were untrue, but the Democrat had more specifics at his disposal than the incumbent. And Mr. Jealous began to make the case that Mr. Hogan simply hasn’t done enough on major issues like the opioid crisis.
His best moment in the debate was in response to a question about what three specific things each candidate would do to reduce the achievement gap between wealthier and less affluent students in our schools. Mr. Jealous offered a crisp response — getting higher quality teachers in every classroom by raising pay, establishing universal pre-K and developing better vocational programs in high schools. He then spent the next few minutes periodically interjecting during Mr. Hogan’s answers to point out that the Republican had not actually offered any specific ideas for improvement but instead had bragged about his record investments in education.
“If we have record funding, why don’t we have record results?” Mr. Jealous retorted. “If we have record school construction funds, why were they freezing last winter and broiling this summer?”
And that, in a nutshell, is how Mr. Jealous needed to be framing this race all along — as a question of whether voters think Governor Hogan’s leadership has been strong enough to solve the real and pressing problems facing the state. Maryland has a strong governor system, and we have traditionally elected leaders who use that power and then some to set the agenda. Mr. Hogan has done little of that in this campaign, instead promising simply to keep doing what he has been doing. If Mr. Jealous can convince some swing voters that more of the same isn’t sufficient and can turn out a large number of Democrats whose main mission is to send a message of opposition to President Trump, he could make this a real race.
Still, that’s easier said than done. The polling in this race suggests that there isn’t a deep vein of dissatisfaction with Governor Hogan’s leadership among the electorate for Mr. Jealous to tap into. He has to manufacture it, and that’s a big task. This debate was at best a start in that regard, and now Mr. Jealous is left with no more chances to compete with Mr. Hogan on an equal footing. In that sense, Mr. Hogan achieved exactly what he needed to in the debate — he got through it. The only way this encounter will mean anything come November is if Mr. Jealous runs a much stronger campaign in the weeks ahead than he has so far. We suspect that’s a bet the Hogan campaign is willing to make.