The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland Democratic Party launches coordinated campaign

Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous (D), along with his running mate Susan W. Turnbull and volunteers, meets with voters on Saturday as part of his state-wide canvasing effort. (Keith Lane for The Washington Post)

A long white folding table in a union hall — a makeshift command center for Maryland Democrats on Saturday — brimmed with clipboards, water bottles, cartons of energy bars and satellite maps of Baltimore neighborhoods.

Ken Maxfield, one of three organizers for the Maryland Democratic Party, handed out the supplies and gave nearly two dozen volunteers their marching orders, along with a how-to guide on encouraging strangers to vote for Democrats up and down the ballot in November.

Before the volunteers set out, several Democratic elected officials, including U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous, tried to fire them up.

“The stakes could not be higher in this election,” Sarbanes told them, arguing that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has not taken a strong enough stance against President Trump’s policies. “We don’t need a governor wringing their hands on the bleachers. We need them on the field fighting.”

Similar scenes played out Saturday in Prince George’s, Baltimore, Montgomery, Frederick and Anne Arundel counties as the state Democratic Party launched a coordinated campaign. Volunteers fanned out to knock on 5,000 doors to help Jealous, one of a wave of nationally known progressives who handily won their primaries. The former president of the NAACP faces Hogan, who has remained popular in part by distancing himself from Trump.

Saturday’s canvassing marked the state party’s first major incursion since the June 26 primary. It is part of a broad-based effort to oust Hogan and elect Democratic candidates for county executive in Baltimore and Montgomery counties and in key legislative races in which Democrats face robust opposition.

“We’re not taking for granted that people will get to the polls,” said Kathleen Matthews, chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, which has a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans. “We’re planning regular canvassing, talking to voters and making sure they know Ben and the other candidates.

“For Democrats, it’s turnout, turnout, turnout.”

But Democrats are facing a tough battle against Hogan, who defeated then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown in 2014 by 66,000 votes amid record low Democratic turnout. Hogan enters the race with one of the highest approval ratings a gubernatorial incumbent has recorded in recent history.

Analysts say Democrats have more to worry about than turnout. The party, they say, must make sure voters are casting ballots for Democrats in an election with at least two competitive county executive races and as many as seven seats up for grabs in the state Senate. Losing too many of those seats could cost Democrats a veto-proof majority in the chamber.

“It’s a two-front sort of fight,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College. “It’s not just about turnout, but it’s also ensuring that Hogan doesn’t break away enough Democrats to put him and others over the edge.”

In a sign that Hogan does not plan to cede ground to the Democrats, he opened a campaign office in Baltimore City on Saturday afternoon.

About 200 people joined Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford for the opening. A DJ played music, the campaign passed out “Hogan for Governor” T-shirts, and local vendors gave out free barbecue, hamburgers and hot dogs.

Scott Sloofman, Hogan’s spokesman, said the governor and Rutherford opened the office “because they’re working for every single vote, in every single part of the state. The governor’s comprehensive record of creating an affordable Maryland that encourages the creation of good jobs and more opportunity resonates in households and communities across our state, and certainly in Baltimore City.”

Hogan campaign officials said the office will be headed by an African American woman who is a Democrat and said the team has 263 volunteers in Baltimore. The campaign signed up 37 more volunteers Saturday. Since March, they have knocked on 14,000 doors in the city, the campaign said.

Kelly Sheehan, 37, an occupational therapist who was leaving her home when she recognized Del. Robbyn Lewis (D-Baltimore) in her Riverside neighborhood in Baltimore knocking on doors, said she was leaning toward Jealous. She crossed party lines and voted for Hogan four years ago.

She said she believes the governor has not made enough of an investment in Baltimore. “I’m an education voter,” she said. “I think that is how the city is going to flourish, by investing in education.”

In Baltimore County, Democratic canvassers were concentrating on drumming up support for county executive nominee Johnny Olszewski Jr. and legislative candidates. They passed out literature that encouraged voting for Jealous but otherwise made little mention of the governor’s race, in a swing county in which Hogan enjoys considerable popularity.

Olszewski has not endorsed Jealous or other candidates, saying he preferred for now to concentrate on his race and Baltimore County. The Jealous campaign is in talks with Olszewski to set up an endorsement event, according to a Jealous campaign aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because plans were not final.

“We’ve truly been focused on sharing a vision for what’s needed for Baltimore County,” Olszew­ski said. As he went door-to- door in the Anneslie neighborhood near the Baltimore City border, he talked about modernizing schools, protecting green space and adopting public financing of election campaigns.

Asked about Jealous, Olszew­ski said, “I’m excited by and large that his vision aligns with mine.” Of Hogan, he said, “I think there have been some missed opportunities.”

Registered Democrats whom Olszewski met in the Anneslie neighborhood were mostly supportive of him. But some said they also liked Hogan or needed to learn more about Jealous before voting for him.

“I would consider voting for Hogan,” said Jerry Jurick, 55, an engineering executive, who praised him for being less aggressive than the last Republican governor, Robert Ehrlich. “I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t take the hard edge that Ehrlich took.”

Jurick was concerned, though, that Hogan would govern differently in a second term, when he would not have to worry about reelection.

Jurick’s wife, Margie Brassil, 59, who is legislative director for Del. Dana Stein (D), said she couldn’t vote for Hogan because the next governor will play a big role in redistricting and because Hogan has cut staff in state environmental offices and other agencies.

“I think he’s hurting the state in a lot of ways,” Brassil said.

Going door-to-door in Kensington with running mate Susan W. Turnbull in the afternoon, Jealous told voters on doorsteps that he wanted to “invest more upfront” in schools, health care and the environment. He also said Maryland needed a Democratic governor to appoint judges and to oversee redistricting after the 2020 census.

“When you invest in education, you don’t pay so much later in incarceration,” Jealous said. “If you invest in renewable energy, you don’t pay so much for sea walls.”

This story has been updated.