Maryland Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous said Wednesday he would challenge popular incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on “kitchen-table issues” as part of an national movement to restore the Democratic Party’s historic role as a champion of working people.
Jealous, a former NAACP president, secured the Democratic nomination Tuesday in a decisive victory that puts him in an uphill battle in November against Hogan, one of the nation’s most popular governors.
“You tell us that beating Hogan is like Mount Everest,” Jealous said in a post-election news conference. “Well, we just climbed K2. If you can climb K2, you can climb Mount Everest.”
The general-election contest will ask voters to choose between starkly different visions for Maryland’s future: Jealous’s ambitious plans to offer debt-free college, reduce the prison population and provide universal health care, and Hogan’s proposals to control spending, reduce taxes and draw new businesses to Maryland.
“We’re going to have a real clear choice,” Hogan said in his own post-election news conference. “Frankly this election is going to come down to whether people are happy with the direction the state is heading in . . . or whether they want to go backwards.”
It also will turn in large part on whether Jealous — like other Democratic candidates across the country — can nationalize the race by tying Hogan to President Trump.
Although the governor has actively and repeatedly distanced himself from the president and his administration, Jealous forcefully accused Hogan Tuesday night of not going far enough to oppose changes in environmental and health-care policies and protect immigrants, urban communities and other vulnerable populations.
“Larry Hogan has repeatedly aided and abetted Trump’s lieutenants like Betsy DeVos, who wants to destroy public schools, Scott Pruitt who wants to destroy the Chesapeake Bay and Jeff Sessions who wants to return to the war on drugs,” Jealous said. “Those issues will be an increasing obstacle for Hogan in this campaign.”
Nathan L. Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections, said Hogan “wants to have a local race based on his record and his popularity, while Jealous needs to find a way to harness the national energy from Democrats who want to oppose the president.”
Another key factor will be whether Jealous and his supporters, including unions and wealthy out-of-state liberal donors, can raise enough money to compete with Hogan, who ran unopposed in the primary and heads into the race with about $8.2 million in the bank.
The Democratic Governors Association said it expects to back Jealous financially, although officials did not commit to specific figures. The Service Employees International Union spent heavily to boost Jealous in the primary, and Ricarra Jones, political coordinator for SEIU 1199, said the group was “all in” for the general election campaign.
Susan Sandler, who is heiress to a banking fortune and contributed $250,000 to a pro-Jealous super PAC in the primary, is also “fully committed” to helping in the general election, her office said in a statement.
But the statement said Sandler “does expect the state political establishment and the Democratic Governors Association to now close ranks behind Ben and provide him the same level of support that has been given to prior Democratic nominees in Maryland.”
The win by Jealous, a community organizer who had never run for elected office, was seen by many as a bellwether for the state Democratic Party, which is still reeling from its embarrassing 2014 loss to Hogan.
In addition to Jealous’s win, several progressives defeated establishment incumbents in state legislative races.
Jealous describes his campaign as part of a broad progressive movement, touting his ties to, among others, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams (D).
“If this race was a bellwether, we rung the bell,” Jealous said in an interview hours after his historic win. “This is about picking up where RFK and MLK, Barbara A. Mikulski and Barbara Jordan left off, getting our party back being champions of working people,” he said, referring to past Democratic icons.
Jealous often told voters on the campaign trail that if they wanted to “raise Donald Trump’s blood pressure, you should elect a civil rights leader as governor.”
In a passionate victory speech late Tuesday, he talked about fulfilling the “promise of Maryland” and creating opportunity for all residents.
“Maryland was the state that allowed my family to move out of poverty,” he said in the interview. “We can be that place again.”
Hogan, in his news conference, dismissed Jealous’s agenda as too extreme and too costly.
“If you like [former governor] Martin O’Malley, you’re gonna love this guy,” Hogan said. “He’s talking about tens of billions of dollars in tax increases that will cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs and devastate the great economy that we’ve made so much progress on.”
Jealous has said he will pay for his programs by measures including higher taxes on cigarettes and the wealthiest 1 percent of Marylanders, closing corporate tax loopholes, legalizing and taxing marijuana, and reducing spending on prisons.
“We need leadership in the governors office who knows we are falling behind in jobs and wages and the race for the future,” he said. “We can’t settle for old ideas or empty platitudes at a time when so many of us are struggling.”
Hogan rejected the idea that he was too close to Trump, who is widely unpopular in deep-blue Maryland. He did not vote for the president and has denounced his policies and actions multiple times, most recently declaring that “immigration enforcement efforts should focus on criminals, not separating innocent children from their families.”
“The one thing that Ben and I have in common is that neither of us endorsed, supported or voted for Donald Trump,” Hogan said Wednesday.
One lingering question after the primary was Jealous’s relationship with the state party establishment, which mostly backed Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.
In public statements Wednesday, leaders generally rallied around the nominee, although some seemed to have reservations about his platform. U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who backed Baker, said he would campaign for Jealous.
“Maryland needs Ben Jealous as our strong leader in Annapolis to stand up to President Trump’s divisive, poisonous agenda every day – not just when it’s politically convenient,” Van Hollen said in a written statement.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who did not endorse anyone in the primary, praised Jealous’s campaign skills — which were notably better than Baker’s — but appeared tovoice concern about the potential cost of some of Jealous’s health and education programs.
“Everybody rallies around and supports the candidate,” Busch said in an interview. “He’s a dynamic individual, has good organizational skills. We’re going to see how his policies sell with the citizens of Maryland.”
Asked whether he agreed with those policies — such as “Medicare for all” and debt-free college — Busch said, “ Many of the policies are things we try to achieve. . . . You have to work all that out in the confines of your budgetary situation.”
Arelis R. Hernández and Steve Thompson contributed to this article.