The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many Marylanders remain undecided as early voting begins this week

Candidates are flooding the airwaves, trading barbs and jockeying for endorsements in the home stretch to the July 19 primary

A 2020 general election voter at Wheaton Library & Recreation Center. Early voting begins Thursday in Maryland. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Ahead of polls opening for early voting in Maryland this week, a new survey shows that a majority of likely voters have not decided who they want to fill the seat being vacated by term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan (R).

The poll, conducted by Goucher College, found no clear front-runner among Democratic or Republican candidates to succeed Hogan as campaigns kick into high gear, blasting ads into people’s homes, sticking literature in front doors, and sweating it out at parades and farmers markets.

“There is a surprising number of undecided voters across the board, which means people aren’t paying attention,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Voters in both parties have another similarity: They are worried about inflation.

According to the poll, Democrats and Republicans described inflation as a “major concern,” with 72 percent of Democrats and 90 percent of Republicans describing it as top of mind. The same percentage of Republicans cited gas prices as a top concern, while 71 percent of Democrats cited the environment and climate change. Crime and public safety were major concerns for 83 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats.

Three candidates — State Comptroller Peter Franchot, former U.S. labor secretary Tom Perez, and best-selling author and former nonprofit chief Wes Moore — are statistically locked in a three-way tie to lead the 10-person race for the Democratic nomination. Only 2 percentage points separated Franchot, who received 16 percent, and Perez and Moore, who each had 14 percent.

Meanwhile, the two leading candidates for the Republican nomination, Del. Daniel L. Cox of Fredrick, who has the backing of former president Donald Trump, and former Maryland commerce secretary Kelly M. Schulz, who is endorsed by Hogan, are running neck and neck with less than three percentage points between them. Cox is leading with 25 percent.

The poll, which surveyed 403 Democratic and 414 Republican likely voters and has an error margin of nearly 5 percentage points, found that 35 percent of Democratic voters and 44 percent of Republican voters were undecided. Most of those who did know whom they would vote for said their decisions are not firm.

Schulz calls out Democrats for bolstering her GOP opponent

The uncertainty in the final stretch has left campaigns making every effort they can — anywhere they can — to connect with voters.

Turnout is expected to be low. Earlier this spring while the state’s top court weighed a legal challenge to redistricting maps, it pushed the primary back three weeks, to July 19, which for many is the height of summer. Observers said it’s now even more important for campaigns to connect with the party’s most loyal voters, ensuring they cast their ballots by mail, vote early or turn out on Election Day.

“In a low-turnout year, every little push matters, every contact matters,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College.

Over the weekend, Perez wiped sweat pouring from his brow as he knocked doors in Montgomery County on Saturday morning before the start of the a weekend-long July Fourth parade circuit.

As one woman slowly inched open her door, Perez quickly rattled off some of his most recent endorsements (The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun), handed her a mailer with a picture of him and former president Barack Obama on the back (Obama has not made an endorsement in the race) and asked for her support. At the unanswered doors, he jotted a personal note that he was sorry to miss them.

Perez said he is confident he will win Montgomery County, where he lives and once served on the county council. Four of the 10 candidates in the race are from the voter-rich county. Lawns in the Silver Spring neighborhood were sparsely dotted with campaign signs for local council and legislative races, and within one door of each other a Moore sign and a Douglas Gansler sign.

Franchot, who is running a new television ad in the Baltimore market, announced late Friday that he tested positive for the coronavirus, experiencing mild symptoms, and would be campaigning from home until he can safely return to the trail.

Moore, who has outraised all of his opponents, launched a new radio ad featuring U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), one of a long list of well-known elected officials backing him. “Wes represents a new generation of leadership with the courage to fight and fix the problems that we face every day,” Mfume says.

Meanwhile, former nonprofit chief Jon Baron, a first-time candidate in the Democratic contest who is largely self-financing his campaign, also has a new television ad running in the Baltimore market that dismisses past efforts to address the state’s problems. Baron received 2 percent in the poll. Former state attorney general Douglas Gansler, former U.S. education secretary John B. King Jr., Ashwani Jain, retired teacher Ralph Jaffe and socialist Jerome Segal were also lagging behind the top three Democratic candidates in the poll with single-digit support.

Maryland has a glass ceiling. Democrats won’t break it this year.

Franchot, who has served as comptroller since 2007 and has the most name recognition statewide, remained at the top of the heap. But the poll and its margins appear to show that Franchot’s earlier advantage is slipping slightly and that the race still is wide open.

The poll did not include former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who suspended his campaign last month. At the time, Baker indicated that he would officially withdraw from the race and endorse one of his opponents. Last week, a state election official said Baker, who gambled on public financing, was still a candidate even though he was not actively campaigning.

No candidate receiving public financing has ever dropped out of a race. Under campaign finance laws Baker was prevented from endorsing without giving back the $1 million he received from the state to support his campaign.

How Baker’s appearance on the ballot will affect votes is another uncertainty in the race.

“I think that’s one of the big unknowns,” Kromer said. “Rushern Baker is absolutely going to get some votes.”

Several elected officials who endorsed Baker have since switched allegiance. Last week, Prince George’s County Council member Mel Franklin backed Moore, saying at a news conference that “there is no other candidate that Rushern Baker spoke more highly about than Wes Moore.”

In the Republican race, Eberly said, the Schulz/Cox horse race shows how popular Trump is among Republicans — even in Maryland.

“Cox is the perfect candidate for an election that is all about the base and when most folks aren’t paying attention,” he said.

The two remaining Republican candidates, attorney Joe Werner and former delegate Robin Ficker, who was recently disbarred, received 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively, in the poll.

Early voting begins Thursday.