The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland gubernatorial primary could be the most expensive in state’s history

The Maryland State House in Annapolis glows after dusk in April 2018. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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More than six months before the filing deadline, a crowd of candidates has lined up to replace outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, in what analysts say could be one of the most expensive primary races in state history.

The experience and sheer number of candidates could lead to a record-breaking contest, one that outpaces the Democratic primary in 2014 when Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and state Del. Heather Mizeur collectively raised more than $20 million, according to state election officials.

“This is going to be a high-dollar affair,” said Mileah Kromer, an associate political science professor and director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said: “The folks who would like elections to be less expensive likely will not be happy about this race.”

Some Democrats have quietly expressed frustration that their candidates are all men. On the Republican side, Kelly M. Schulz, who is Hogan’s commerce secretary, is vying to become the Republican nominee, along with Del. Daniel L. Cox (R-Frederick), a strong defender of former president Donald Trump, and former state lawmaker and perennial candidate Robin Ficker.

The Democratic field has racial diversity, with three Black men — John B. King Jr., a former U.S. education secretary who is also of Puerto Rican descent; Wes Moore, a former head of the Robin Hood Foundation; and Rushern L. Baker III, a former Prince George’s County executive — and one Hispanic man — Tom Perez, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee and former U.S. labor secretary. Ashwani Jain, a former candidate for Montgomery County Council who also is running, is the son of Indian immigrants.

But the Democrats lack gender diversity.

“It’s unbelievable to me,” said Terry Lierman, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Lierman — whose daughter, Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City), is running for comptroller — said the dearth of women seeking statewide office is “like a drought” in Maryland, which has not had a woman in its congressional delegation since January 2017.

Although there have been Black lieutenant governors and a female lieutenant governor in Maryland, no Black person, Hispanic person or woman has ever been elected to statewide office on their own.

Eberly said there is still time for a woman to enter the race.

“It is — at least according to the calendar — still early,” he said.

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With a year until the June 22 primary, Democratic candidates have been jockeying to raise money and their profiles as they try to gain an early foothold in the race.

The candidates launched their campaigns this spring — using videos and websites because of the pandemic, instead of orchestrated events with campaign speeches delivered before supporters.

With case numbers low, vaccination rates high and restrictions lifted, several of the hopefuls stumped in Fourth of July parades across the state over the weekend, particularly in voter-rich Montgomery, Baltimore and Howard counties. Multiple Democratic candidates will gather this month at a barbecue organized by the state Democratic Party in Prince George’s County, where they will have an opportunity to do some normal retail politics among hundreds of party loyalists.

Those scheduled to attend include Baker, Perez, King, Moore, Gansler — who, like Baker, is making his second run for the state’s highest office — and Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Baker, who served two terms as Prince George’s County executive, finished a distant second to Ben Jealous in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary. He has struggled in the past with raising money but decided to run after Angela D. Alsobrooks, his successor in Prince George’s County, said she would skip the governor’s race and seek a second term as county executive.

Perez, who served as Maryland labor secretary during Martin O’Malley’s administration, has picked up early endorsements from former Montgomery County executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett and state Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City). His Rolodex is filled with the names of national party donors, but he also clashed with the party’s left flank over issues such as endorsing Andrew M. Cuomo for New York governor during the primary while running the DNC, which could cost him support from Maryland’s most liberal party activists.

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King and Moore are making their first runs for public office. Each made an initial splash by announcing he had raised $1 million shortly after entering the race.

“Those numbers are eye-opening,” Eberly said. “You have to take that haul seriously.”

King, a Yale-educated lawyer, is a former teacher who went on to become a U.S. education secretary. Moore, a Rhodes scholar, author and military veteran, left his chief executive position at the Robin Hood Foundation, a top anti-poverty organization, to seek the Democratic nomination. He has secured the support of Montgomery County council member Will Jawando and Jeffrey Slavin, a real estate executive, philanthropist and mayor of Somerset who is a former member of the state Democratic Party committee.

Franchot, a 34-year politician who has been in his current position since 2007, boasts that he has received the most votes of any statewide candidate in Maryland’s history. He is not a party insider, but he has statewide name recognition, which analysts say gives him a sizable advantage from the start. He also has the heftiest war chest, with $2.2 million in the bank as of January, the last campaign filing period.

Gansler, who has proved his fundraising prowess in past elections, ran two successful statewide campaigns for attorney general. But his bid for governor in 2014, where he was considered an early favorite, was derailed by two scandals: allegations that he ordered state troopers to speed while driving him to appointments, and revelations that he appeared at a beach week party with graduating high school students, including his son.

The lesser-known Democratic candidates include Jain; Michael Rosenbaum, a Baltimore-based businessman who is able to self-finance; and Jon Baron, a former federal government employee and nonprofit executive.

With none of the candidates releasing policy positions that would offer a glimpse at their ideologies, Kromer said the race remains wide open.

“We don’t know if one candidate will become the progressive in the race and who that might be,” she said. “We don’t know who has support from elected officials. . . .There are just a lot of unknowns at this point.”

Kromer said given that Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a “woman icon,” represented Maryland in Congress for decades, it “feels a little strange” not to have a woman among the Democratic hopefuls.

Four years ago, three women sought the state’s executive office: Krishanti Vignarajah, a former adviser to Michelle Obama; Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a policy consultant; and Valerie Ervin, a former Montgomery County Council member who had been a candidate for lieutenant governor but sought the higher office after the unexpected death of her running mate, Kevin Kamenetz.

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The Republican field is smaller, but growing, with Cox’s announcement Sunday night that he would run.

Eberly said Schulz, a Hogan mentee, would be wise not to dismiss the candidacy of Cox, a first-term delegate and Trump loyalist who helped arrange tour buses to go to the Jan. 6 protest at the U.S. Capitol. He also tweeted that day that Vice President Mike Pence was a “traitor.”

Cox’s entry into the race could divide the Republican Party, Eberly said, and require Schulz to answer questions about Trump that she might otherwise try to skirt in the primary.

Ficker has sought public office multiple times in recent years.

Meanwhile, observers continue to wonder about another possible candidate: former lieutenant governor Michael Steele, who has long been active in state GOP politics.

Steele, an MSNBC commentator and ardent Trump critic who announced before the November election that he would vote for Democrat Joe Biden, said in an interview that he is still assessing the race.

Steele, who was the first Black person to head the Republican National Committee, said he put himself on a timeline to decide by the fall. Asked about rumors that he might consider a run as an independent, Steele declined to comment.

“The most dangerous thing to a Democratic nominee would be an independent bid from Michael Steele,” said Justin Schall, a Democratic consultant who is not working on any of the campaigns. “If the nominee ends up being not a person of color, then I think Michael Steele is very, very dangerous.”

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