This week, three Democrats widely considered to be the most likely candidates to challenge Gov. Larry Hogan in 2018 will head to the Eastern Shore for a statewide conference of county officials, and each will make an unofficial pitch for himself as the one to take on the popular Republican.
The four-day meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) in Ocean City offers the potential gubernatorial candidates a chance to network with scores of elected leaders from across the state.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and U.S. Rep. John Delaney — the most-talked-about potential Hogan challengers — have been making the rounds and pleading their cases for months by attacking Hogan on issues from school and transportation funding to Donald Trump, his party’s presidential candidate.
“It’s never too early to start jockeying,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College.
Relative unknowns outside their jurisdictions, they are trying to raise their profiles statewide, and the MACO conference provides another opportunity for them to reach scores of influential people in a short period of time.
Kamenetz and Baker attended the J. Millard Tawes Crab & Clam Bake, an annual political schmoozefest, in Somerset County last month before heading to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
“Wherever there’s an event with at least two Democrats, [Kamenetz has] been there,” said Donald Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
In Philadelphia, the Baltimore County executive hosted a late-night party with Maryland Democrats, attended meals with the state party and distributed a daily newsletter dubbed the Kamenetz Chronicle, which he slid under the doors of the state’s convention delegates and guests. He has also hired Colleen Martin-Lauer, who led the fundraising efforts of then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), to be part of his team.
Kamenetz is not scheduled to deliver remarks at the MACO conference, which begins Wednesday, but his staff said he will host a party Wednesday night. He will also attend several board meetings as second vice president of the organization.
“I anticipate there will be much discussion regarding Governor Hogan’s cuts to education and transportation funding, and how this might further strain the budgets of Maryland’s counties,” Kamenetz said of the conference.
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor, who will give the final address on Saturday, plans to spend his time in Ocean City focusing on “what the administration can continue to do to support all of Maryland’s local jurisdictions. Unlike others, he is not there to lobby for future political support.”
Baker will host a reception with Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) on Thursday night in Ocean City.
Last month, the Prince George’s County executive’s political campaign provided transportation for 200 Democrats to go to Philadelphia for “Maryland Day” during the national convention. On the bus, water bottles with Baker’s 2014 campaign stickers affixed were distributed.
Baker used a Maryland Day speech to bash Hogan on spending and other issues, but it’s not clear whether his and other attacks have gained traction.
Baker, who says he is considering a run after his second term as county executive ends in 2018, has also tried to align Hogan with Trump. But it is unclear how the presidential race will affect the 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
Hogan has tried to distance himself from his party’s nominee. He said in June that he would not vote for Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton, and he did not attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last month. The decision angered some members of the state Republican Party.
Before Hogan’s announcement that he would not back Trump, Delaney hammered him for being slow to take a position on the outspoken billionaire’s divisive campaign. He even hired a mobile billboard to drive around the state capitol challenging Hogan to take a stand on the candidate.
Delaney, who has insisted that he is focused on his 2016 congressional campaign, spoke at a Maryland Democratic Party breakfast in Philadelphia, and he will give a speech in Ocean City this week about technology’s effects on the economy and competitiveness.
Each potential challenger offers something different for Democrats, who are looking for the best option to win back the governor’s office.
Kamenetz, who is serving his second term as Baltimore County executive, has a record that includes a mix of fiscal discipline and big investments in school construction. He has strong roots in Baltimore County, a jurisdiction that was pivotal in the election two years ago. He has tangled with Hogan over installing portable air conditioners in county schools and has a plan to install central air. Hogan has criticized the proposal because it would not be completed until 2019, at the earliest.
Matthew Crenson, a political science professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, said Kamenetz is known in Baltimore City, where many residents are less supportive of Hogan.
Baker, who has made major investments in public safety and education, has improved the image of Prince George’s, which experienced a major corruption scandal under then-County Executive Jack B. Johnson in 2010. Crime rates have dropped, and economic development has grown substantially, including the soon-to-open MGM National Harbor casino.
Baker is also a former state delegate who has strong ties to the General Assembly and its leaders.
Delaney, who represents a congressional district that includes parts of Montgomery, Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties, is a moderate Democrat. A former businessman, he has backed tougher regulations on brokers who offer financial advice to retirees, and he crossed party lines to support tax cuts and legislation that would have required the Obama administration to certify that refugees are properly vetted before allowing them to enter the United States.
Eberly said that Democrats need to challenge Hogan from the center and that Delaney seems to offer that position.
Political observers say whoever becomes the Democratic gubernatorial nominee will face a huge challenge in trying to unseat Hogan, who had an approval rating of more than 60 percent in polls earlier this year.
However, the Democratic nominee “starts with some degree of an advantage,” Eberly said, noting that Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland by 2 to 1.
If the economy slips and Hogan continues to make what Eberly called “unforced errors,” such as referring to teachers union leaders as “thugs” and refusing to spend school dollars that the General Assembly appropriated in counties like Baltimore County, which was crucial to his win, the governor could become slightly vulnerable.
But if Hogan goes into the election with a 60 percent to 70 percent approval rating, Eberly said, “it’s difficult to see how voters throw you out.”