Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous may be struggling to get his message out to Maryland voters, but he has earned the attention of President Donald J. Trump.
Trump, at a rally in Montana on Thursday night, criticized Jealous over immigration — though not by name.
“In Maryland, the Democrat candidate for governor wants to give illegal aliens free college tuition courtesy of the American taxpayer,” Trump said. “Come on in, free college.”
The crowd booed. But the Jealous campaign on Friday cheered, seizing on the spotlight by issuing a statement and holding a conference call with fellow Democrats to try to tie Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to Trump.
Trump’s words were an apparent swipe at Jealous' proposal to offer free tuition to community college students, without excluding Maryland residents who were brought to the United States without authorization to stay as young children — a group known as Dreamers. Jealous is not proposing free tuition for more recent arrivals.
For Jealous, whose weak fundraising has stymied his ability to counter a barrage of ads from Hogan and the Republican Governors Association, Trump’s attack came as free advertising. While Trump’s line went over with the crowd in red Montana, polls show the Republican president is deeply unpopular in Maryland.
“My best guess is that the Hogan people would prefer that Trump stay as far away from Maryland as possible,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.
Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican who is the GOP leader in the House of Delegates, agreed. When Kipke heard Trump’s mention of Jealous, he said he thought, “Can you just stay out of Maryland?”
“It just doesn’t help us,” Kipke said.
Jealous’ campaign was quick to pounce, knowing that tying Hogan to Trump could be effective in a state where the Republican president is unpopular. The former NAACP president, who has said his election would raise Trump's blood pressure, released a statement calling on Hogan to publicly reject Trump's “hateful rhetoric that seeks to divide us.”
“I’ve put out a clear plan that says any Maryland high school graduate can attend community college tuition-free, and that includes Dreamers who were brought to this country through no fault of their own,” Jealous said in a statement.
The Dreamers are already eligible for in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities as a result of a 2012 referendum in which Maryland voters decisively approved a law extending those benefits known as the Maryland Dream Act. Jealous was one of the prominent supporters of a yes vote that year.
The Hogan campaign responded to Jealous’ statement with a defense of the governor’s immigration policy and an attack on their opponent’s political style.
Hogan campaign spokesman Scott Sloofman said legislation Hogan supported expanding community college scholarships — along with his current proposal to further expand scholarships to four-year public colleges — includes the Dreamers.
“If Ben Jealous knew anything about what has gone on in Maryland over the past four years, he would understand that we’ve been working together in a bipartisan way to make this happen, and Marylanders have no interest in the hyper-partisan fights he so clearly relishes,” Sloofman said.
Even before Jealous won the June 26 primary, Maryland Democrats mounted a sustained effort to tie Hogan to Trump — without much evidence of success. Hogan, who refused to support Trump in 2016 and has kept his distance ever since, maintains a commanding lead in polls and fundraising. The Republican’s $9.4 million war chest is nearly 25 times bigger than Jealous’ $386,000.
But some leading Democrats seized on Trump’s intervention in the race in the hopes that it could be a game-changer.
A few hours after the Jealous statement, U.S. Reps. Anthony G. Brown and Jamie Raskin joined former gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk and immigrants rights advocate Gustavo Torres on a teleconference call to draw parallels between Trump and Hogan on issues ranging from immigration to health care to oil drilling off the Atlantic Coast.
“President Trump’s attack on our Democratic nominee for governor, Ben Jealous, gives us an opportunity to restate and reaffirm what we stand for,” Raskin said.
Pena-Melnyk, who represents Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, said Maryland needs a governor who, like the Democratic Party, stands for inclusiveness.
“We need a governor who embraces all Marylanders regardless of their legal status,” she said.
Brown accused Hogan, who beat him in the 2014 election, of sharing Trump’s values.
“He’s a silent co-conspirator in these destructive and divisive policies of the Trump administration,” Brown said.
Trump’s incursion into Maryland politics could help him fire up the Democratic base and give Jealous’ fundraising efforts a much-needed boost, Kromer said. She noted that within hours of the rally, Maryland Democrats were seeking to raise money off Trump’s statement.
But Kromer said this incident alone was not enough to tie Hogan to Trump in voters’ minds. She said Goucher’s polling shows voters approve of the distance Hogan has put between himself and Trump.
“I don’t think this changes the entire trajectory of the race,” she said. “This still centers on two starkly different paths for the direction of Maryland.”
“Marylanders recognize that Larry Hogan is not in the mold of Donald Trump,” he said. “He’s a bipartisan guy focused on Maryland. He has gone out of his way — to the ire of some Republicans — to criticize Trump.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.