Del. Jon S. Cardin leads the Democratic field in the race for Maryland attorney general, but the contest remains far from settled because of a striking number of undecided voters and a well-funded challenger who is gaining ground, according to a new poll conducted for The Baltimore Sun.
The campaign to succeed attorney general Douglas F. Gansler appears to be the most volatile statewide contest in the June 24 primary. It possesses an unusual dynamic — Cardin, of Baltimore County, leads despite having far less cash on hand and fewer high-profile endorsements than state Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County.
Cardin, the nephew of U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, is ahead with the support of 26 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, the poll found. Frosh has 16 percent and Del. Aisha N. Braveboy of Prince George's County has 7 percent. But the most commanding number is that of the undecided voters — 42 percent.
"Some of those people will end up probably just skipping the race, but a lot of them — most of them — will vote," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks of Annapolis, which conducted the poll for The Sun. "And so that is the tremendous wild card in this race: What will those 42 percent do?"
Name recognition can be critical to distinguish a candidate in such a low-profile race. While the poll didn't measure the advantage of Cardin's well-known last name, "I would certainly think there is some of that going on," Raabe said.
Barbara Muchene, 73, of Columbia, who was among Cardin's 26 percent, said that was the case for her. "I'm not so familiar with the attorney general race," Muchene said. She selected Cardin, she said, because "I like his relative a lot."
Several Cardin backers interviewed from other counties, including Baltimore and Howard, also said they based theit support mostly on their comfort level with the family name. Cardin has dismissed suggestions that the bulk of his support is derived from his uncle. In his three terms in the House, the delegate has pushed legislation against "revenge porn" and cyberbullying, among other issues.
According to the poll, Cardin enjoys relatively strong support from voters also backing Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Anthony G. Brown. Since the lieutenant governor's campaign is expected to have a solid voter turnout operation, Raabe said "that speaks very well" for Cardin's hopes because it means these Brown-Cardin voters are likely to make it to the polls.
But the poll found Cardin's candidacy was hurt by a report in The Sun that he missed nearly 75 percent of his committee votes during this year's legislative session. He later said he needed to spend time with his pregnant wife and young daughter. Thirty-one percent of those polled said they were less likely to vote for Cardin because of the missed votes.
"It's not crippling, but it probably is damaging," Raabe said.
Frosh picked up the endorsement of Gov. Martin O'Malley last week. The governor's backing could help Frosh blunt Cardin's popularity with Brown's voters, "and it certainly is going to help him with these undecideds," Raabe said.
Neither Brown nor any of the other Democratic gubernatorial candidates has made an endorsement in the attorney general's race.
O'Malley followed his endorsement with an appeal to his supporters to contribute money to Frosh's campaign. The governor said in a blast email that he wanted to ensure that Frosh "has the resources necessary to win on Primary Election Day."
In Frosh's camp is Montgomery County retiree Thomas Bass, 70, who's a fan of the veteran lawmaker whose causes have included gun control and protecting the Chesapeake Bay. Bass called the state senator "a thoughtful, intelligent guy." He said he believes the more voters are educated about the contest, the better Frosh will fare.
Though Braveboy trails in the contest, some of her supporters said she brought fresh energy to the race.
Among them is Syd Jacobs, who is also backing Del. Heather R. Mizeur for governor. Jacobs, 60, of Adelphi, said she favored candidates who did not feel entitled and weren't part of what she called "the old boy network." Braveboy, Jacobs said, "definitely is not an 'old boy.' "
But many voters either had not yet tuned in to the race or were just doing so.
Benjamin Leuthold, 31, an artist from Baltimore, said he knew "a little" about Cardin but is unfamiliar with the other candidates and is undecided.
There may be little buzz about the race among voters, but Leuthold said electing a strong, independent attorney general is essential because "God forbid there is an issue with the governor" requiring the attorney general to intervene.
Frosh recently reported having $864,000 in campaign cash on hand — nearly twice as much as Cardin's $486,000. Frosh's first Baltimore commercial went up June 1, and his campaign said another spot will air in Baltimore early next week. Frosh began on television in Washington on May 28.
The Cardin campaign said its television ads would begin airing today.
Braveboy reported having less than $70,000, meaning the volume of her media spending won't be significant compared to the others .
The poll of 499 likely Democratic primary voters was conducted by telephone from May 31 to June 3 and has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points. The primary election is June 24. Early voting begins Thursday.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Jeffrey N. Pritzker, a Towson attorney, in November. Pritzker is running unopposed in the Republican primary.
The attorney general, who oversees a staff of about 450 lawyers, acts as a legal adviser to the governor, the General Assembly and state agencies and courts. The office's legal opinions can affect voters' lives on a broad range of issues, including consumer protections and civil rights. Maryland is one of 43 states that elects attorneys general rather than appoints them.
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Last week, Cardin's campaign stumbled when he accepted an endorsement and a $100 contribution from a rapper facing charges of human trafficking. The campaign rejected the endorsement and returned the money after learning about the charges. It is uncertain whether the matter will hurt him in the race.
Gansler, the current attorney general, said he declined to endorse a candidate because "I think it's unseemly to endorse in the race for somebody to succeed you. You have to work with the person" in the transition, he said.
Results are based on a survey of 499 likely Democratic primary voters done by OpinionWorks of Annapolis for The Baltimore Sun. The survey was conducted by telephone, both land-based and cellular, by trained interviewers from May 31 to June 3. The margin of error is 4.4 percentage points.