Outgunned financially and trailing badly in the polls, Democrat Ben Jealous faces what some say is a make-or-break moment headed into his only debate against Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
At 11 a.m. Monday, the two men will take the stage at the Owings Mills offices of Maryland Public Television. Each will likely emphasize his policy objectives. For Hogan, that’s cutting taxes. For Jealous, that’s increasing popular social programs.
But political observers will be watching with a question beyond policy in mind: Can Jealous revive his struggling campaign?
A strong performance — or a bad Hogan stumble — could inject new energy into the Democrat’s campaign. It could mean more supporters, an influx of contributions and a shot of badly needed momentum.
A poor performance — or an embarrassing gaffe — would be a blow to a campaign that is trailing by 22 percentage points, according to the latest poll, and has a fraction of the incumbent’s cash.
“This is the last serious time to turn the campaign around,” said Melissa Deckman, a professor of political science at Washington College. “Jealous needs to have a terrific performance.”
Jealous must use his less than 30 minutes of time wisely and counter some of the negative advertising Republicans have run against him, including attempts to brand him as a “socialist,” analysts say.
Jealous, the former CEO of the NAACP, “has a very compelling life story,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. “His parents had an interracial marriage and had to move out of state. He stuttered as a child and had childhood epilepsy. Yet he rose to lead the nation’s largest civil rights organization. He’s being portrayed as a socialist, but he’s lived the ultimate American success story. I think he should start with that.”
Hogan, by contrast, has been riding high, leading in the polls and flush with cash.
But he has his own stumbling blocks to avoid in the debate. Analysts say Hogan shouldn’t become cocky and, at all cost, should avoid anything that ties him to Republican President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Maryland.
Richard Vatz, a conservative professor of communications at Towson University, said Hogan should avoid being complacent and shouldn’t play “prevent defense,” a tactic in which a winning team will give up some ground to an opponent, seeking only not to lose.
“I’ve always hated it in football and I hate it in politics. It makes a big lead into a race that’s close,” Vatz said. “I think he should be aggressive and I think that’s his instinct. When front-runners start worrying about making mistakes, they become too meek.
“Remember Barack Obama’s first debate against Mitt Romney. He was weak and passive. But he made up for it in the later debates,” Vatz said. “Since there’s only one debate this election, you don’t get to make terrible mistakes and then come back.”
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said the biggest worry for Hogan should be coming across like a Trumpian bully.
A political action committee began airing last week what they said would be a $1 million TV ad campaign seeking to tie Hogan to Trump and his education secretary Betsy DeVos — while arguing Hogan has been bad for the state’s schools.
“The looming threat for Hogan is the Trump threat,” Kromer said. “You’d rather appear a little bit sleepy than be tied to President Trump.”
The Goucher poll published last week had Hogan leading Jealous by 22 percentage points. But it said voters support several of Jealous’ key policies: 71 percent of Marylanders back a $15 minimum wage, while 62 percent want to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Jealous wants to use revenue from taxing the sale of marijuana to pay for expanded pre-kindergarden programs.
A majority of Maryland voters were also supportive of a Jealous-backed proposal to convert the state to a Medicare-for-all system.
“It’s very clear that there are still a lot of voters who don’t know who Ben Jealous is and are finding out the issues he stands for,” said Kevin Harris, a senior adviser to Jealous.
“We view the debate as an opportunity for him to introduce himself and make it clear he is the candidate with the policies Marylanders care about,” Harris said. “A majority of Marylanders favor our approach to dealing with health care, the economy and education.”
The poll also indicated Marylanders are most concerned about jobs and the economy.
Most Marylanders — 54 percent — surveyed this month think the state is headed in the right direction, while 30 percent believe it’s on the wrong track. Marylanders also are concerned about taxes: 56 percent say the state’s taxes are too high, while 2 percent say they’re too low.
The Hogan campaign said it plans to seize on those poll results.
“The governor is looking forward to a spirited conversation about the important issues facing Maryland,” said Doug Mayer, Hogan’s deputy campaign manager. “He’s going to talk about his record of success and what he hopes to accomplish going forward, including his efforts to make Maryland a more affordable place to live, work and retire. He’s going to talk about bipartisanship and how Maryland is becoming an example to D.C. about how you can get things done by working across the aisle.”
The debate almost didn’t happen.
Hogan initially accepted two debates in September, but Jealous countered, saying he wanted five.
When Hogan refused to budge, Jealous said he couldn’t make one of the September dates because of a scheduling conflict, leaving voters with only one televised debate — just 60 minutes to see the two candidates face-to-face on stage.
The debate’s panel will include representatives from The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, WMDT-TV in Salisbury and The Herald-Mail in Hagerstown.
The Jealous campaign initially vetoed the Hagerstown reporter, Tamela Baker, but changed course amid outcry from other media members.
Deckman said she expects Hogan to try to make the debate about the economy and taxes. “He’s got such a wide lead that even an average performance isn’t going to hinder him,” she said.
As for Jealous, Deckman said, he should hit the Republican governor on education — and how the state’s schools have fallen in a closely watched national ranking.
“That’s a legitimate area where Jealous can attack,” she said.
Kromer said Hogan “needs to come across as a steady-handed leader who is not in any way like Donald Trump. He needs to continue to remind Marylanders about pocketbook issues and that all of the these Jealous proposals come with a cost.”
Jealous will need to break up Hogan’s support among centrist Democrats, Kromer said.
“He has to convince those moderate Democrats that he can pay for all those ideas,” including universal health care and debt-free college, Kromer said.
Eberly said Hogan has to be careful not to do anything to change voters’ views of him as an “affable guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
“He needs to maintain that,” Eberly said. “He does have a tendency to get annoyed, to let people get under his skin. He doesn’t need to get snarky at this debate.”
Jealous, on the other hand, has to “connect his campaign to the policies voters support.”
“When you’re down 22 points, there’s a lot riding on this debate,” he said. “He needs to have voters leaving the debate thinking, ‘We can vote for this guy.’ It’s a debate that could stop the bleeding.”