Ben Jealous stunned the Maryland Democratic establishment with his 10-point primaryvictory, becoming the most high-profile of several insurgent candidates in the state who defeated establishment-backed rivals. Steering a campaign that brought together unions and progressives, he won 22 out of 24 jurisdictions.
But in the general-election campaign, the first-time candidate and former NAACP president has struggled to build similar momentum. He is short on cash and trailing in the polls and was largely defined by his opponent, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, before he had a chance to define himself.
Jealous says he knew it would be difficult to unseat one of the most popular incumbent governors in the nation. He and his aides insist that he is on track, following his underdog strategy to turn out 1 million Democratic voters by rallying those who stayed home in 2014 and hammering on the need to lower drug and health-care costs, close the achievement gap and pay teachers more money.
“From our perspective, the race is fundamentally where we expected it to be,” said Kevin Harris, a senior campaign adviser. “Our challenge was always going to be getting our message out to enough people. If we do that, Ben will be successful.”
But elected officials and outside analysts say Jealous has been hurt by his failure to overcome his outsider status within the state’s Democratic power structure, raise enough money to communicate his message and combat attack ads, and quicklyunify Democrats after the primary.
In recent polls, he trails Hogan by double digits — even though registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans more than 2 to 1 in the state. At the same time, in what has the potential to be a wave year for Democrats nationally, two other progressives — Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida — are waging competitive gubernatorial races in states that voted for President Trump, drawing media attention and potential funding away from Jealous.
Unlike Hogan, who cast himself as an outsider but was deeply involved in the state GOP before running for governor, Jealous has lived most of his life outside Maryland and had few strong ties to the party establishment when he launched his campaign.
“He is unknown in the state,” said Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College. “And that problem has snowballed. He’s an outsider, he hasn’t gained a lot of traction, and many in the establishment in Annapolis and the state are keeping a distance from him.”
Aside from choosing Susan Turnbull, a former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee as his running mate, several Democratic officials in Maryland said, Jealous has made little effort to build relationships within the party. One state lawmaker said Jealous only recently called him to ask for a campaign donation, months after the primary.
Jealous, who has spent the past five years working as a venture capitalist, has enthusiastic endorsements from prominent national figures, including former president Barack Obama, U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and CNN commentator Van Jones.
But he’s gotten the cold shoulder from many Democratic local and state elected officials. Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who has built a close relationship with Hogan, says he will not vote in the race. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) gave tepid support, and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has yet to endorse.
“He was relying on Progressive Maryland types, and they are not as effective as they think they are, not when you are talking about organizing and trying to get to voters,” saida top lawmaker from Prince George’s County, who asked not to be named to speak candidly. (Progressive Maryland is one of several advocacy groups that gave Jealous a strong boost in the primary.)
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) — the establishment favorite who came in second in that six-way nominating contest — said Jealous needs Maryland elected officials “to be pumped up” about his campaign to help build out his ground game.
“If you don’t have a long history with them, it’s a hard task,” said Baker, who endorsed Jealous after the primary.
Harris, the Jealous adviser, said the campaign has reached out to party leaders and other elected officials but did not necessarily anticipate their support in the general election.
“We knew going back to the primary that there would be some folks who may not be supportive of Ben in the Democratic Party — and we won their districts, too,” Harris said. “That wasn’t a surprise to us or a threat to our ability to win the general election. This is always the race that we anticipated to run.”
He said many local officials are “helping the campaign in significant ways,” including Baltimore City Council member Brandon Scott, who ran for lieutenant governor in the primary on the ticket of James Shea, and Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D), a former state senator who has helped raise money and served as a surrogate for Jealous in the media.
The campaign is also working closely with several Democrats in Maryland’s congressional delegation, which is especially eager to have a Democrat in the governor’s mansion for redistricting in 2020. “They represent more people and are more known in their districts,” Harris said. “A state senator is great, but a congressman is amazing.”
Some Democratic activists, such as Sandy Pruitt in Prince George’s County, say Jealous has not done a good job selling his vision of universal health care and expanded prekindergarten as bread-and-butter issues Democrats should care about. Former governor Parris Glendening (D) said he thinks Jealous has failed to sharply focus the campaign on the issues that have voters angry and upset. As a result, he said, Democratic leaders have missed an opportunity to rally around those issues.
“I think he is right on all of the issues — growing inequity, the fear of affording college,” Glendening said. “I find it personally frustrating that those issues are not the central part of the debate of the leadership. . . . He needs to go out and say how he plans to move the state forward.”
Several lawmakers said Jealous squandered an opportunity to connect with local officials and discuss his agenda when he skipped the annual Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City this summer.
“You set yourself up for more talk of ‘Oh, he’s not a real Marylander,’ ” said one statehouse Democratic leader, who also asked not to be named to speak candidly.
Timothy Maloney — a prominent lawyer and former Democratic lawmaker who recently endorsed Hogan, a longtime friend — called the decision to skip the conference “a repudiation.”
“It was saying, ‘I know this is several thousand elected officials, but I’m making a public statement that this wasn’t important enough to me,’ ” Maloney said.
But others disputed that criticism. “He needs to be talking to people,” said Del. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City), who is running for state Senate and ousted a longtime incumbent in the primary. “I would challenge that just because you miss MACo, that is going to cost you.”
Harris said Jealous spent the time meeting with voters in Baltimore and Frederick and focusing on their concerns. “Most voters don’t know what MACo is, but they know their prescription drugs are really high and that the minimum wage should be raised,” he said.
It’s a different strategy. But McCray, who recently donated money to Jealous, called him a different type of candidate. “He’s not an elected official taking a traditional route; he’s on a nontraditional route,” McCray said. “You are not going to beat a popular governor by taking a traditional route.”
Aisha N. Braveboy, the Democratic nominee for Prince George’s County state’s attorney, said she thinks that Jealous’s message is one that appeals to voters but that Hogan, who has a huge financial advantage, has created a narrative that is difficult to combat.
“Our job as a party is to ensure that we give our candidate the best chance to be successful,” she said. “We have to do our jobs, too.”