The gaggle of Democrats seeking to topple Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) occupied every inch of a Baltimore stage on a recent Tuesday, a shoulder-to-shoulder phalanx that included one woman in a red jacket and a blur of men in blue suits, one of them inexplicably wearing sunglasses.
A full 20 minutes passed before the candidates finished introducing themselves to the audience, which included Nancy Steichen, a social worker who sat in the back and took notes as she tried to master who was who.
“Don’t even ask me their names,” Steichen said. “In one ear and out the other.”
Six weeks before the June 26 primary, the major Democratic candidates — a cast including one county executive, one state lawmaker and four political novices — are struggling to capture voters’ attention and emerge as the clear alternative to Hogan.
Regaining control of Maryland’s top seat may seem like a simple task in a state in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 and at a time when President Trump has newly energized legions of progressive voters.
Yet the governor has managed to attract broad support, in part by distancing himself from Trump and Republicans in Congress. Hogan has a 69 percent approval rating and $9 million in his campaign account — more than the entire Democratic field.
The dynamics of the Democratic race grew murkier last week with the death of Kevin Kamenetz, the Baltimore County executive who was among the leaders in the polls. Valerie Ervin, Kamenetz’s ticket-mate and a former Montgomery County Council member, has until Thursday to decide whether to replace him on the ballot.
Whatever Ervin chooses, the field’s size already has complicated the candidates’ efforts to raise money and distinguish themselves given that they “violently agree” on most issues, as one put it recently.
The muddle also has tested voters’ ability to accomplish that most basic of tasks — matching the candidates’ names with their faces.
“The Italian one, Mad—, Mad—, Mad—,” said Ed Downey, a Silver Spring retiree, squinting as he tried to recall the name of state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery).
Donald F. Norris, emeritus professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said none of the Democrats are standing out “in a way that challenges Hogan.”
“It’s like a bowl of oatmeal — it’s all the same,” Norris said of the field. “He can ignore them just like everyone else is doing.”
Democratic leaders counter that the field’s size — and the seemingly endless litany of candidate forums — is evidence of the party’s muscle and the energy behind its opposition to Hogan and Trump. They note that Maryland’s last Republican governor, Robert Ehrlich, had a 55 percent approval rating two weeks before Martin O’Malley defeated him in 2006.
“They are an army of voices showcasing the shortcomings of Larry Hogan,” said state party chair Kathleen Matthews. “It’s going to drive record turnout and boost Democrats’ chances in November.”
On any given night, the candidates can be found at a church or school competing to make an impression, sometimes in the most rudimentary ways.
“Let me remind you, I’m Jim Shea,” the candidate who is a prominent Baltimore attorney told a recent audience — an hour after he had already introduced himself.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III — leading most polls, albeit with less than 20 percent of the vote — likes to remind audiences that he’s “the only candidate” who has managed a large county and also served as a state lawmaker.
“I specialize in getting things done” is his mantra, which he repeats in various ways wherever he goes.
Madaleno, the campaign’s only openly gay candidate, casts himself as Hogan’s chief tormentor in Annapolis and makes no apologies for being what some rivals, in tones befitting a horror movie, refer to as a “career politician.”
“We’re paying such a price for the ultimate outsider,” he told one audience, referring to Trump. “Do we really want to double down on that?”
Former NAACP chief Ben Jealous touts endorsements from progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), with whom he appeared at a rally recently in Prince George’s.
“Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” the crowd chanted as the pair mounted the stage. Sanders leaned into the mic and instructed the supporters, “You’ve got to change that to ‘Ben! Ben!’ ”
Jealous starts his appearances by telling voters that his election is a sure way to “make Donald Trump’s blood pressure go up.” His rivals make similar vows of impending anguish if they’re elected.
“I am Larry Hogan’s worst nightmare,” declares Shea, the former head of the Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland, who often cites his business acumen and command of regional issues.
“I’ve been called Donald Trump’s worst nightmare,” insists Krishanti Vignarajah, a former Obama administration appointee. “I’m Larry Hogan’s worst nightmare, as well.”
Vignarajah, who lived in Washington during much of her time with the Obama administration, is the only candidate in the field who has faced questions about her residency status.
But she prefers highlighting her standing as the field’s only woman, releasing a campaign commercial that showed her breast-feeding her daughter.
“Conventional wisdom says that no man can defeat Larry Hogan,” Vignarajah tells every audience. “Well, I’m no man.”
But it is tech entrepreneur Alec Ross who promises to be the “feminist governor.” Like Vignarajah, he frequently mentions his time with the Obama administration, although he likes to add that he’s not part of the “carousel” that produces traditional politicians.
Ross also has found more-novel ways to stand out.
After Madaleno told an audience in Silver Spring that he would be Maryland’s first Italian American governor, Ross took the microphone and, in his best Italian, said, “Okay, bene, sono anche Italo-Americano” (Okay, well, I’m also Italian American).
As the audience laughed, he then offered to speak Italian with his rival.
Madaleno’s expression suggested that he was not interested.
Not since 1994 have Maryland Democrats had so many candidates competing in a gubernatorial primary. Prince George’s County executive Parris N. Glendening won that race and went on to become governor.
Twenty-four year later, party chair Matthews said Democratic leaders are conscious of not showing favoritism toward any candidate, hoping to avoid the kind of division that emerged during the 2016 presidential race, when progressives accused the party of rigging the nomination for Hillary Clinton.
“I set a goal of being judiciously fair and evenhanded and making sure there was no appearance of putting the finger on the scale,” Matthews said. “That was the way to rebuild trust in the party.”
The rise of Trump, the embodiment of an outsider, also inspired a more heated political environment and a sense of opportunity for political neophytes in Maryland and beyond. Four of the six well-financed Democratic candidates — Jealous, Vignarajah, Ross and Shea — have never held elected office.
“As a consequence, it’s a very diluted field, and no one has enough money to take over the race,” said former state attorney general Douglas F. Gansler, who lost to Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown in the 2014 Democratic primary and is backing Madaleno. “At the same time, you have a popular governor, so there’s no urgency to get behind a Democrat.”
Party leaders contend that the race will crystallize after voters choose a nominee and turn their attention to the general election. But even the Democratic candidates complain that Hogan has commandeered their issues, including most recently making community college tuition-free for low- and middle-income residents.
“Why is he a popular governor?” Madaleno asked one audience. “Because he’s running on my record not his record.”
As they mull their choices, Democratic voters are not expressing a pressing need for change in Maryland, at least not yet.
“It’s hard for me to like a Republican, but we’re cool with Hogan — he hasn’t made any serious mistakes,” Jerry Coopey, a retired federal administrator, said as he showed up for a forum in Prince George’s.
He said he would vote for a Democrat, if only to express his leanings. But he wasn’t sure who, since he knew only one candidate’s name.
“The Jealous guy — didn’t he do something nationally?” Coopey said. “I don’t know the rest.”
At the Baltimore forum, Gail Sunderman, 67, a research scientist, looked at a stage that was even more crowded than usual, thanks to the participation of a Green Party candidate and two lesser-known Democrats, including Ralph Jaffe, a retired teacher, who distinguished himself by being the one in sunglasses.
As she departed two hours later, Sunderman was still trying to figure out who has the best shot.
“I’ve got it down to five,” she said of her choices, smiling at the prospect that she has time to decide.