This should be a good year for Maryland Democrats to try to topple popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. They outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in the state, and the party expects to benefit from a nationwide “blue wave” of voters energized by opposition to President Trump.
But the candidate backed by most of the state Democratic establishment — Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III — is running a lackluster primary campaign, analysts say. He has struggled to raise money and has relatively little cash on hand a month before the primary, according to reports filed this week.
Senior Democratic elected officials who support Baker are expressing frustration that he has not broken away from a pack of comparatively little-known rivals and concern that the rest of the field may be too inexperienced, too liberal or too lacking in name recognition to strongly challenge Hogan this fall.
“I would have thought that by now, [Baker] would be the prohibitive favorite, but that isn’t happening,” said former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan (D), who hasn’t endorsed anyone.
Baker “is the front-runner, but he needs to kick his campaign into high gear,” said a senior Maryland Democratic elected official who is backing the county executive. Like five others interviewed for this article, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s political sensitivity.
In an interview, Baker said he has heard from worried supporters but believes the wide-open nominating contest will make whoever wins the June 26 primary a better candidate come fall.
“A lot of the concern I hear is . . . ‘If you haven’t done away with the [primary] candidates by this point, then you’re going to limp into the general election,’ ” Baker said. “I think the competitive primary makes us stronger for the general. It lets us know in the campaign where we’re weak in organizing around the state and the work we have to do.”
Maryland is one of three states that voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 but whose incumbent GOP governors are “likely” to win reelection, according to the Cook Political Report. Like Hogan, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott have positioned themselves as centrists who can appeal to independents and moderate Democrats. Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the Democratic Party’s struggles in those states threaten its hopes of flipping several governor’s mansions.
“When you start out looking at states that are deeply blue and ought to turn blue gubernatorially in a reasonably good year for the Democratic Party, and you realize that they aren’t, then it gets tougher to pick up those six or eight or 10 governorships,” Sabato said. “Hogan is not quite as secure as the other two , but he’s still looking pretty good as of May.”
Almost every top Democrat in Maryland who has endorsed someone is backing Baker in the primary, including U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, state Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert), Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and former governor Parris Glendening.
Party leaders praise Baker’s long record as a state legislator and county executive and say he curbed corruption, reduced crime and promoted economic development in Prince George’s. If he were to win the nomination and beat Hogan, he would make history; Maryland has never had an African American governor.
But Baker’s résumé, establishment support and high name recognition in the populous Washington suburbs may not mean as much in a year when Democrats in other states are nominating outsiders with fresh stories to tell. He has not stood out at candidate forums, and his campaign events — like those of the other contenders — don’t draw large crowds.
“He’s not a big personality as much as somebody of substance,” said Mileah Kromer, a Goucher College political science professor. “He’s a person who’s high on credentials and low on flash.”
Baker appears to face a robust challenge from Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president who supports statewide single-payer health care and free state college tuition. And both Jealous and Baker will probably be outspent in the final weeks by lawyer James Shea, who has stockpiled $1.4 million for television advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Adding to the unease is concern that if Baker wins the nomination, his record in Prince George’s makes him vulnerable to attacks on education and taxes. He raised taxes to generate more money for public education in 2015 — and would have hiked them more if not for pushback from the County Council. And his hand-picked schools superintendent announced he will step down after a string of well-publicized controversies.
Democratic leaders defend Baker’s actions, echoing his argument that he showed political courage in making tough decisions.
“A more cautious person could have said, ‘I’m not going to get involved in that. I’ll just leave the status quo in place,’ ” said Van Hollen, who is featured in Baker’s first — and so far only — television ad, which will air on Montgomery County cable stations next week. “Let’s be clear: He raised taxes for the specific purpose of improving the Prince George’s County school system.”
But analysts said that logic may not resonate with voters, who elected Hogan partly in a backlash against tax increases under his predecessor, Democrat Martin O’Malley.
Baker said he had heard the criticisms of his campaign but was confident it was peaking at the right time.
He attributed his difficulties in raising money partly to an ethics law he helped get passed in Prince George’s that blocks him from accepting donations from developers doing business in the county.
The campaign has more than 30 paid, full-time canvassers and more than 1,300 volunteers, who are concentrating their ground game on the Baltimore area and other parts of the state where Baker is less well known.
Party leaders have spoken with Baker about their concerns and, in some cases, tried to help him raise money, officials said. Supporters told Baker he erred by skipping the annual Louis L. Goldstein Dinner in Calvert County in March, a major event for Southern Maryland Democrats. Baker said it was important for him to attend an event in Montgomery that day.
The combination of strong establishment support and a potentially weak candidate has spurred comparisons with two past Democratic gubernatorial debacles. Party leaders united early behind the candidacies of then-Lt. Govs. Anthony Brown in 2014 and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002. Both cruised to their nominations only to lose in the general election.
“There’s a sense of deja vu, Baker and Brown, this idea that it’s his [to win], but he’s not necessarily running a particularly good campaign,” said Todd Eberly, a St. Mary’s College of Maryland political science professor.
Two obvious differences are that Baker is not a lieutenant governor but instead the top elected official in the state’s second-most-populous jurisdiction. And, so far, he has not cruised to the nomination.
The most recent polls, taken in February, showed Baker in the lead in the primary contest but with a larger percentage of voters undecided. The race was shaken up this month by the sudden death of Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who was also considered a top contender.
Party leaders don’t have an attractive alternative to Baker, according to the officials and analysts. Many leaders view Jealous as an outsider, from the Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) wing of the party, with no governing experience. Much of the party establishment is more centrist, including Baker, who among other things does not support making all state universities tuition-free. He also does not support legalizing marijuana unless the state first takes significant steps to address racial disparities in the industry.
Several other candidates are also more left-wing than party leaders. In addition to Jealous and Shea, the field includes state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., technology entrepreneur Alec Ross, former Michelle Obama aide Krishanti Vignarajah, and former Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin, who recently took Kamenetz’s spot on the ballot.
“Rushern would be the very best person for the general, because he’d have the huge metropolitan base in Prince George’s and Montgomery,” a senior state Democratic official said. But he added, “Whoever wins the primary is going to have an extremely difficult uphill battle.”