In dueling news conferences held just blocks apart in the Baltimore suburbs Wednesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic challenger Ben Jealous presaged a fierce battle for votes in one of Maryland’s key bellwether counties.
Each announced endorsements by Democratic elected officials from Baltimore County and went on to describe the vote-rich region as crucial to winning the governor’s mansion.
The emphasis on the swing jurisdiction comes as Hogan, a popular Republican seeking a second term in a heavily Democratic state, and the national GOP are relentlessly trying to portray Jealous and his progressive agenda as extreme.
Jealous has stumbled in responding to their attacks, including cursing Wednesday when a reporter asked about them. His Democratic allies have let more than $1 million in television attack ads go unanswered.
Both candidates told reporters gathered in Towson that they would aggressively court Baltimore County’s half a million voters, the biggest prize outside of the populous D.C. suburbs.
Hogan announced his first endorsement from a sitting Democratic state lawmaker, outgoing Sen. James Brochin (Baltimore County), who said Jealous was pulling the party too far to the left and urged fellow Democrats to choose the person — regardless of political affiliation — they think is right for the job.
Jealous, a former NAACP president who decisively won a six-way Democratic primary, rolled out endorsements from Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and seven other current officeholders.
Sarbanes described Jealous as the candidate best positioned to appeal to Democrats who say education is their top issue this year. The congressman also repeatedly called Jealous “an investor” in the state’s future, trying to reframe Republican claims that the candidate’s proposals for universal health care and debt-free college would be too costly for Maryland.
Although Baltimore County has twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, voters there have been willing to cross party lines, backing Hogan in 2014 over Democrat Anthony G. Brown by 53,202 votes. Hogan’s statewide margin of victory was 65,510 votes.
But Jealous and his supporters say they are confident that they can persuade Democrats to support him this year, in part because progressives are surging in key races nationwide and many Marylanders are disgusted with President Trump.
“We’re talking about delivering a powerful narrative,” Sarbanes said. “It’s a new day. It’s a new election.”
Minutes later, Jealous made a gaffe that threatened to drown out that message.
Asked about a new ad from the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and recent comments by Hogan that described him as a “socialist,” Jealous dismissed that criticism as “name-calling” and cited past examples when terms such as “socialist” and “communist” were used to discredit African American leaders.
“Him calling me a far-left socialist is what the tea party called Barack Obama. It’s what Barry Goldwater called Martin Luther King,” Jealous said. “When you see conservatives like Hogan name-calling, you realize that they’re scared.”
Jealous’s campaign could not provide an example of Goldwater making such a comment about King, who was famously — and inaccurately — labeled a communist by J. Edgar Hoover.
Jealous was a chief surrogate during the 2016 campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont who identified himself as a democratic socialist. Although Jealous has embraced many of Sanders’s policy ideas — Medicare for all and debt-free college among them — he has not called himself a socialist.
At the news conference, pressed to say whether he identified with the term, Jealous responded with profanity. “Are you f---ing kidding me?” he said.
The vulgarity ricocheted across Twitter, onto national cable news and through Maryland political circles. Within hours, Jealous apologized and clarified his thoughts. “I’m a venture capitalist, not a socialist,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter. “I have never referred to myself as a socialist nor would I govern as one.”
Jealous’s top campaign staff and the Maryland Democratic Party separately convened political reporters from across the state Wednesday for an unusual joint briefing to outline their strategy and make the case that Jealous has a realistic chance of toppling Hogan.
Democrats are counting on a record turnout. Their target is 2.1 million voters — a 20 percent increase over the 2014 election — with Jealous capturing 1 million of those votes.
No Republican has ever received 1 million votes in Maryland, and with a 2-to-1 registration advantage, campaign officials said Jealous would benefit if high numbers of Democrats show up at the polls.
Party leaders also played down the significance of Brochin endorsing Hogan, pointing out that the lawmaker has split with mainstream Democrats on several high-profile issues, including repeal of the death penalty years ago.
Brochin, a 16-year lawmaker, ran for Baltimore county executive this year instead of seeking another term in the legislature; he lost the Democratic primary to progressive John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. by 17 votes. He is known as one of the General Assembly’s most dogged campaigners and promised to focus his energy for the next few months on helping Hogan win votes in Baltimore County.
“I’ll do whatever he wants, whatever he needs,” Brochin said.
Hogan has significantly more to spend in the race than Jealous. According to the most recent campaign finance filings — from a week before the June primary — Jealous had $260,190 cash on hand while Hogan had $8.2 million.
Hogan also has been boosted by the RGA, which has aired three television ads on his behalf. The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) has not aired any in response, but a spokeswoman for the group said it will invest heavily in the race to ensure that Hogan is “a one-term governor.”
Kevin Harris, a senior adviser to Jealous, said the campaign has been in close contact with the DGA since the primary but has yet to ask the organization to help with advertising.
“Larry Hogan has to run his campaign how he sees fit,” Harris said. “And we will run ours the way we see fit. We don’t feel the need to bombard Marylanders with negative advertising in July and August.”