They’re Off and Running


Or are they?

Although it seems likely there will be a crowded field in Maryland’s 2018 Democratic Primary for Governor, appearances might be deceiving. Currently, eight names have been mentioned frequently enough to become a list, but it’s far from certain that all of them will still be running a year from now.

There are two reasons why the race has attracted as many prospects as it has. First, incumbent Larry Hogan looks like he could be vulnerable.

The most important factor is numerical. Hogan was elected Governor in 2014 with 884,400 votes in the November General Election.  By contrast, Martin O’Malley accumulated 942,279 votes in his 2006 victory and even more, 1,044,961, in winning reelection in 2010. In other words, Hogan’s win in 2014 was significantly impacted by Democrats not bothering to vote that year. Will they come back in 2018?

A second factor that might put Hogan at risk is the looming shadow of Donald Trump.  Maryland’s Republican Governor has done his best to avoid commenting on the chaos being created by Trump or on his growing political and legal problems.  Whether Hogan can get through an election season ducking and weaving around the backlash to new health care legislation and to federal budget cuts that will do great damage to Maryland seems doubtful.

On the other hand, Hogan remains popular, will have a mountain of money to spend on the General Election and, so far, has not stumbled badly on any particular issue.  He has demonstrated significant political skills and by next November may have built on those skills to solidify his position.

The second reason for the crowded Democratic field is that none of the contenders has established himself as a clear frontrunner.  No one comes into the race with the kind of political stature that Martin O’Malley had in 2006.

Some potential candidates are betting that the electorate will be looking for the kind of candidacy that they represent.  Is this going to be an outsider year?  Is one of these eight this year’s Bernie Sanders?  Or does what remains of a Democratic establishment reassert itself in the primary?  Moreover, with a large field, someone could win with considerably less than 40% of the vote by cobbling together the right coalition.

Looking at the credentials of the eight candidates–and I suppose others could still decide to join the race–three or four seem the most likely  to be still in the running by next year’s June Primary.  In making that observation, however, I’m not discounting the possibility that one of the lesser known candidates could put together a brilliant campaign and catch fire with voters.

Meanwhile, let’s segment the field.  Two county executives, both term-limited in their current positions, are almost certain to stay in the race.  Rushern Baker of Prince George’s and Kevin Kamenetz of Baltimore County both have records as local leaders that they can tout in their bids for statewide office.  On the other hand, both face the challenge of not being well-known beyond their home jurisdiction.

How well Baker and Kamenetz will do in running a statewide campaign and in raising the large amounts of money needed remains to be seen.  You can easily find supporters of each who will voluntarily offer critiques on the shortcomings of the other but, ultimately, voters will  get to make that judgment.

John Delaney and Doug Gansler belong in a different category.  The former, representing the 6th Congressional District, is clearly  interested in higher office and has the advantage of being able to put a lot of his own money into a campaign.  That money might overcome Delaney’s relative lack of name recognition outside his district, but he has to decide whether it’s worth the investment.  There is speculation that Delaney might instead have aspirations to national office.

Gansler is the only potential candidate who has already run a statewide race–three of them in fact.  The former State Attorney General lost the 2014 Democratic Primary to Anthony Brown, but could certainly argue that the deck was stacked against him.  Whether he can overcome the “beach party” picture from that race and build on his network of volunteers and donors are his big challenges.  A recent poll by his campaign did show him with a double-digit lead in name recognition.

If both Delaney and Gansler stay in the race, they will cut into each other’s vote totals.  On the other hand, if one of them drops out, the other may have a feasible path to winning the primary.

The other four names being mentioned–Ben Jealous, Rich Madaleno, Alec Ross and Jim Shea–are harder to classify.  Madaleno is a highly respected State Senator from Montgomery County who has been the leading critic of Governor Hogan among members of the General Assembly.  Whether he would give up his seat and the considerable influence he has in Annapolis will probably depend on whether his early campaign is able to attract enough donors and supporters to make him a credible threat to win the nomination.

The other three are political outsiders, individuals who have never run for political office before.  Jealous, former head of the NAACP, is trying to position himself as the populist in the race and still needs to demonstrate that he can put together a campaign that reaches traditional Democrats.  If he stays in the race, he has the potential to split the African-American vote with Baker and make it harder for either of them to win.

Whether Ross and Shea have any chance to make an impact on this race is anyone’s guess.  The early betting line is that neither of them do.

Who the Democratic nominee will be partly depends on how many candidates stay in the race and which ones do.  If the contest is highly divisive and the winner ends up with little or no money left for the General Election, the advantage will definitely swing back to Larry Hogan.

However, if one of these candidates emerges as a clear frontrunner and is able to raise a competitive war chest, the Democrat’s registration advantage combined with a high level of anti-Trump activism could be decisive.  No one has any basis for being complacent.