There are decades of governmental experience and public service among them. Connections they’ve established with voters and relationships with powerful allies have deep roots. Millions in campaign donations are flowing their way.
Maryland’s 10-man field is set in the race for the Democratic nomination for governor. But in such a crowded pack of viable candidates, the race is anything but settled less than three months before the July 19 primary.
The Democratic candidates — more than half of them reasonably well-funded or boasting substantial political résumés — are vying to be the party’s nominee with hopes of retaking the governorship after eight years under Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is finishing his second and final term.
Fundraising hauls, recent sniping among the candidates and a smattering of internal campaign polls point to a few potential leading candidates — but also highlight just how fractured the field remains. Traditional party power brokers haven’t coalesced behind a front-runner because none has emerged. Instead, the candidates in a relatively deep field of potential contenders are still trying to build wider bases of support and break from the pack.
For the potential primary voters among Maryland’s 2.2 million registered Democrats, the true front-runner at the minute is probably “Undecided.”
“It’s wide open and I don’t think a lot of people are paying that close attention to this race quite yet,” said Mileah Kromer, a professor and pollster at Goucher College in Towson. Kromer suspects more than half the voters aren’t leaning toward any candidate at this time.
Party kingmakers watch and wait
Although a handful of prominent Democratic politicians have weighed in with endorsements, many remain on the sidelines. That’s an indication they’re still sizing up the field — or that those accustomed to backing winners can’t tell yet which is the most promising bandwagon to clamber aboard.
At a Baltimore event Monday that wasn’t tied to the campaign, U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin and U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore demurred when asked who they might endorse. Van Hollen — an early supporter in 2018 of former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III, who’s running again — said the larger field this time around led him to decide to hold off and simply back the primary winner.
“At this point, I see no need to do it,” said Cardin. “We have a great group of candidates running for governor. I’m comfortable supporting any one of them.”
The race is packed with candidates who’ve held statewide positions (Comptroller Peter Franchot and former Attorney General Doug Gansler); served in prominent national roles (former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and former Education Secretary John King, who both served under President Barack Obama); won a significant local office and finished in the last primary as a runner-up (Baker), or have strong personal brands and fundraising sources (author and former nonprofit executive Wes Moore).
Rounding out the field are four more candidates: Jon Baron, a former federal official and public policy advocate; Ashwani Jain, a former Obama White House official; Jerome Segal, an academic and socialist who previously founded the Bread and Roses Party, and Ralph Jaffe, a teacher who also ran in 2018.
Due to legal battles over redistricting, the filing deadline was postponed twice, ultimately shifting from the original Feb. 22 to April 15.
Democrats are eager to retake the governor’s mansion in the otherwise deeply blue state after eight years of Hogan. Democrats hold a more than 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration over Republicans and normally dominate statewide races, but have been repeatedly frustrated at the top of the ticket over the past two decades as Hogan and former GOP Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. have won three of the last five elections. Hogan can’t run again due to term limits.
Smaller Republican field
Whoever emerges from this year’s Democratic primary will face the winner of a four-way Republican race headlined by Hogan-endorsed Kelly Schulz, a former Frederick County delegate who spent seven years as a cabinet secretary in Hogan’s administration.
Most observers believe Republicans could fare well nationally in November, creating a tail wind that may help make the general election in Maryland competitive, despite the state’s Democratic leanings.
Not who you know, but who knows you
For the 10 Democrats, the question is not whether they’re known among the highly engaged “political class” influenced by endorsements, but whether they’re connecting with the hundreds of thousands of voters who will try to discern between them as they begin filling out mail-in ballots or head to the polls, Kromer said. The first mail-in ballots are expected to go out at the end of May, with eight days of early voting beginning July 7.
The governor’s race is still “mostly unsettled,” primarily because of the size of the field and a lack of independent polling so far, said Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Eberly pointed to limited polling so far, almost all of it less-reliable internal polls fielded by the candidates, showing Franchot with a slight edge over Baker, followed closely by a grouping of Moore and Perez — with undecided voters still making up the largest pool.
“There are a lot of folks who are still undecided in this race,” Eberly said. “The question is: ‘Do people really start to pay attention in the next three months?’”
The possibility of fresh, public polling and new campaign finance reports, due June 14 and July 8, should offer a clearer picture of who voters and party insiders might coalesce around in the final weeks of the campaign, Eberly said.
Winning with less than half the vote?
But if the field stays large, he said, the Democratic nominee could win the primary with a mere 30% of the vote.
“Of course, the worry for Democrats is: ‘Does that potentially leave the party splintered and where they need to put it back together going into the general election?’” Eberly asked.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Television ads and strong field operations are going to make the difference in terms of the candidates’ visibility, and no one is pulling far ahead of the others in those categories quite yet, said Kromer, who directs Goucher’s Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics.
And while some candidates are already on television, they haven’t gotten to the point of “saturating” the market enough to stand out to voters.
That typically requires spending substantial amounts of money, always an important asset, but especially so down the stretch in such a large field. With some already airing television spots, keeping up that advertising through July 19 could force the top contenders to spend more than $5 million just in the primary, said John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County.
“Democrats will have to spend close to bankruptcy,” Dedie said.
The resources they spend on a robust organizing effort may also make a difference in a year when the redistricting challenges pushed the primary from June 28 into prime summer vacation time. The 2018 primary, held on June 26, saw a 29% turnout among the state’s registered Democrats.
“All the campaigns are going to focus on not just getting on TV, but what efforts are you making to come out on a 90-degree day in the middle of summer, and what efforts are being made in getting mail-in ballots done?” Dedie said.
Coming next week: A deeper look at Maryland’s Republican field.
This article has been updated to correct the top four candidates cited in a description of internal polling. They were Peter Franchot, Rushern Baker, Tom Perez and Wes Moore. The Sun regrets the error.