OCEAN CITY — The crowds started gathering as soon as Gov. Larry Hogan stepped onto the beachfront boardwalk here, and the governor didn’t flinch when a shirtless, sweaty man threw an arm around his shoulders to pose for a photo.
Hogan (R) was in his element, and he worked the sandy, sun-kissed crowds for nearly two hours, drinking beers with local firefighters, celebrating the 125th anniversary of a local business, snarfing french fries with local politicians and taking selfies with everyone who wanted one.
His Democratic opponent, Ben Jealous, was nowhere in sight.
Jealous voluntarily ceded the stage to Hogan last week as hundreds of Maryland’s state, federal and local officials gathered in Ocean City for an annual conference that has been a fixture in the state’s political calendar for nearly 90 years.
Jealous’s decision to skip the Maryland Association of Counties summer gathering — instead meeting with voters in Baltimore City and Frederick — set off another wave of anxiety among his supporters in the Democratic establishment.
“Democrats are nervous and concerned,” said John T. Willis, a longtime Democratic strategist and University of Baltimore professor who wrote a book on Maryland politics and attended the conference.
“There’s more coverage about his absence than if he had shown up and spent 15 minutes delivering his platform,” Willis said. “Personally, I would be here.”
Jealous’s absence from the resort town, where the state’s political press corps also gathered, has raised questions about whether eschewing traditional Maryland campaign techniques is a misstep or a savvy move in a tough race.
Jealous, the former NAACP chief and community organizer, has focused his progressive, outsider campaign on dramatically boosting Democratic turnout in the vote-rich D.C. suburbs and the Baltimore region. Jealous is banking on the deep unpopularity of Republican President Donald Trump and his own platform of a $15 minimum wage, debt-free college and Medicare-for-all to get a wave of infrequent voters to show up in November.
Hogan, the popular, well-funded incumbent, has governed as a moderate in a deeply Democratic state. He seized the Ocean City conference as an opportunity to meet privately with Democratic leaders, to rub shoulders with vacationing Maryland voters and to tell local government leaders how much he would help them if reelected to a second term.
“This conference is far more than just a speaking opportunity,’” Hogan told a crowd of local leaders.
Jealous turned down an invitation to speak to the conference’s 1,400 attendees for 15 minutes at the close of the event in a forum on issues involving local government. He was invited to answer questions on the stage alone, after Hogan had done the same. Jealous also skipped the four-day cycle of parties, fundraisers, glad-handing and seminars on local government topics such as “Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water: Know Your Water Law.”
For longtime Maryland leaders, the conference is a can’t-miss event.
“It’s one of the major events of the year for a lot of different reasons,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) said Friday night, surrounded by more than 200 elected officials, lobbyists and their families picking crabs and drinking beer beneath two enormous tents.
“A lot of history is here. This is one place where so much of politics in Maryland come together,” Cardin said. He then declined to publicly assess Jealous’s decision not to come. “I never second-guess what people decide to do.”
Several other Maryland Democrats who requested anonymity to speak candidly said they unsuccessfully urged the Jealous campaign to reconsider.
“It’s not going to lose him the election, but it might lose him some relationships,” one veteran Democratic state lawmaker said. “It puts him in the position of having to win on the merits, and this is a tough race. I mean, look at that,” the lawmaker said, gesturing to Hogan, who was posing for photos with the children of other elected officials.
Jealous’s running mate, Susan W. Turnbull, attended one day of the conference and the crab feast to meet with women in local government, but she largely dismissed its significance.
“This is an insider’s event,” Turnbull said.
On Saturday, Jealous hopped from Baltimore to Frederick, where the campaign said more than 100 activists and volunteers gathered for a rally and plans to get out the vote.
“What we’re trying to do is meet with actual voters and small business people,” Turnbull said from Ocean City. “Most people aren’t here to talk about politics. Most voters haven’t even heard of MACO,” referring to the group’s acronym.
Nonetheless, Jealous’s campaign on Friday distributed talking points for surrogates who get questioned about his absence.
“Concern/Attack: Why isn’t Ben at the MACo summer convention? This seems like a major mistake,” the document said, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post.
For some in the Democratic establishment, Jealous’s decision to abandon what they consider a crucial event was the latest in setbacks that include a viral video of Jealous cursing at a reporter, more than $1 million in unanswered attack ads from Republicans and a public poll showing Hogan with a 16-point lead and Jealous’s unfavorability ratings on the rise.
Political forecaster Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, on Thursday reclassified the race from “leans Republican” to “likely Republican.”
While Hogan told a crowd of several hundred elected officials on Saturday morning how much he has delivered for the state, Jealous was shaking hands with voters in Baltimore’s Lexington Market.
Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D), who has been on the council for more than two decades, was in Ocean City and did not understand Jealous’s logic.
“It’s a real big deal,” Young said of the conference. He pulled out his phone to show his calendar stacked with events meeting with policy influencers from across Maryland.
“You just get to meet people from all over the state,” Young said. “If I was him and I was running for governor, I would be here.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who has been a delegate for more than 30 years, shrugged.
“I mean, everybody comes to MACO,” said Busch (D-Anne Arundel). He recalled that former governor William Donald Schaefer had “an entourage of 50 people” during election years slapping stickers on elected officials from across the state.
Jealous is “not running a traditional campaign,” Busch said. “He’s running a values campaign that pits national Democratic values against the values of the national Republican Party under Donald Trump.”
Other longtime observers of Maryland politics see the conference’s political clout as a relic of bygone days, and that Jealous had to make a strategic call.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who has held off on endorsing Jealous, said the conference’s “potential political element is highly overrated.”
“It’s not that important. . . . Not that much business gets done,” said Terry Lierman, former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. “While everyone’s spending all that money in Ocean City partying, Jealous is out there meeting with voters.”
An earlier version misstated where John T. Willis is a professor. This article has been updated.