Commentary: What to make of the flurry of wannabe candidates for governor?

By Josh Kurtz

Back in March 2001, when Terry Lierman announced that he wouldn’t take a second crack at U.S. Rep. Connie Morella (R) despite a strong showing the previous November, several Democrats immediately came forward and said they would explore the possibility of running in 2002.

On the day Lierman dropped the news, a state legislator called me and asked me to include him on the list of possible candidates in the story I was writing. I was about 90 percent sure he wasn’t going to run and that his declaration of interest had more to do with the internal politics of the House of Delegates, where he was seeking a promotion. But he was an accomplished legislator and would have been a credible candidate for Congress, so after some deliberation I included him in the article about potential contenders, even though I felt like I was being played [here’s a column I wrote then about all the jockeying.

I’ve been reminded of this over the past few days, as the names of several Democrats have been dribbling out who say they are thinking of challenging Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in 2018.

From Hogan’s upset victory 28 months ago until very recently, the list of possible Democratic candidates hasn’t changed much: Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, U.S. Rep. John Delaney and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, with former state Attorney General Doug Gansler hanging around on the fringes. Tom Perez was also on the list, but he of course has taken a different path and is now Democratic National Committee chairman.

But the roster has recently expanded: In January, House Appropriations Chairman Maggie McIntosh revealed she was thinking about running for governor or state comptroller. And in recent days, former NAACP President Ben Jealous and state Sen. Rich Madaleno have signaled their interest in a gubernatorial bid. Last week, Maryland Matters reported that Alec Ross, a Baltimore tech entrepreneur and author, is pondering the race.

What are we to make of all this activity? And how many of these people should we take seriously?

The first question is easy enough to answer: It illustrates how wide-open the race for the Democratic nomination is. It’s not like the 2006 election cycle, the last time there was a Republican governor, when then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley was the overwhelming Democratic frontrunner, even with Doug Duncan, then the Montgomery County executive, in the race for a while.

Baker, Kamenetz and Delaney, who have solid records of service, also have unmistakable flaws and clearly aren’t scaring anyone off at the moment. So a diverse collection of people are evidently thinking, “Why not me?”

The question is whether this is a serious “Why not me?” or a fanciful one — freighted with some combination of delusion and self-aggrandizement or a hidden agenda. Or perhaps a desire to simply see one’s name in the headlines.

All are forgivable sins – after all, Al Franken wrote a satirical book back in 1999 called “Why Not Me?” positing what would happen if he were elected president in 2000, probably never imagining he’d actually be elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008.

All of the people who are putting their names forward as possible candidates for governor are serious individuals, and that fact alone makes their flirtation worthy of a certain degree of interest – even respect. If you’re a Maryland Democrat you should probably be excited that people other than just the Usual Suspects are poking around the gubernatorial race.

And you can’t blame these individuals for taking a look. The last few election cycles have brought us tremendous upheaval and political upsets: Delaney upending the entire Democratic establishment en route to winning his congressional seat in 2012, and then Hogan’s election in 2014. And did anyone ever imagine we’d be uttering the words, “President Donald Trump?”

So even in tradition-bound Maryland, where the most important elected Democrats are in their 70s and younger Democrats are forever being told to wait their turn, defying the established order can be worthwhile – especially if you don’t have to give up a safe seat, or if you are willing to risk it. Hogan may be riding high in the polls today, but the uncertainty with Trump in the Oval Office makes the governor – like every blue-state Republican – vulnerable. The Democratic nomination is worth a lot more than it was even a few months ago.

In fact, don’t be surprised to see the roll of Democratic possibilities continue to grow – both seasoned politicians and less conventional picks. Party activists are still looking to U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings to “save” them – but he is unlikely to answer the call. U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes has an appealing reform agenda and is upping his criticism of Hogan these days – and he carries a golden political surname.

Former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is widely respected, but he’s been working on development projects since leaving office. He hasn’t stirred yet, but he could. On the other hand, he’s young (42) – and has time for a political comeback.

Every time author Wes Moore shows up in Annapolis, Democratic hearts flutter – though he was just nominated by Hogan to serve on the University System of Maryland board. Some progressives continue to cast a wistful eye to the Eastern Shore, where former delegate and gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur is in her self-imposed Elba, except to cross the Bay Bridge last month to protest against the Dakota Access pipeline in front of Government House. Is former U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards still driving around the country in an RV, visiting national parks?

Anyone who follows Maryland politics could no doubt come up with another half-dozen names or more of exciting theoretical candidates. A candidate’s desire to test the gubernatorial waters in the weeks ahead could be fueled by political consultants, who look at the unsettled race for the Democratic nomination and no doubt imagine a nice payday with a longshot candidate.

There will be an appropriate time, and soon, to thoroughly assess each of the would-be Democratic contenders – especially those with less traditional pedigrees who have only recently entered the conversation.

But in the end, politics – even in the era of Trump – is still usually a game of fundamentals. Have you raised a lot of money (or do you have an ability to self-fund)? Have you moved around the state meeting local party leaders and activists? Do you have a bankable political base? Have you assembled a good team of staffers and strategists? Do you have a record you can sell and a personal story to tell? Do you have policy chops and can you demonstrate you know what’s going on around the state? Can you communicate a coherent and compelling message? Do people like you? Are top party leaders comfortable with you and willing to help?

Sure, these are traditional metrics, but they help explain why Kamenetz and Baker still have to be seen as the frontrunners for the Democratic nomination.

Kamenetz has been traveling the state and putting the pieces together for a statewide campaign. He’s raised a respectable amount of money. He’s presided over economic growth in his county and held the line on spending and taxes. The Baltimore establishment has been Jonesing for a strong home-grown candidate in the last few statewide Democratic primaries, and could rally behind Kamenetz.

Baker is the African-American leader of the county with the highest number of registered Democrats in the state. He’s a passionate but practical progressive who has helped make Prince George’s a bigger player regionally than it’s been in decades, despite the lingering stench of corruption surrounding the way county politicians have gone about their business. He has a lot of friends in Annapolis. The Washington Post is likely to endorse him in the Democratic primary.

And Delaney is a smart, thoughtful guy who is a self-made multimillionaire. He has worked hard to be bipartisan despite being deep in the minority in the House chamber. His ability to personally bankroll a statewide campaign makes him a real contender if he gets in the race.

All three, as we said before, have discernible flaws. But compare their stature and potential, at least for now, to someone like, say, Madaleno, who is a skillful lawmaker and a budget whiz who has become a persistent and articulate critic of Hogan. Does anyone outside of Annapolis and his district know who he is? Is Madaleno going to visit every corner of the state when the legislative session ends and make his case? Is he ready to do the heavy lifting of raising a million dollars or more over the next nine months? Until those questions are answered, it’s hard to measure his potential.

Same for McIntosh, who is one of the wiliest and most respected lawmakers in Annapolis and Baltimore – and who has been a solid behind-the-scenes player in party politics for years. But is she ready to boost her profile and wage a statewide campaign? And if she does, would her mentor, ex-U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is still the most popular figure in Maryland politics, be willing to campaign full-time for her, effectively making the gubernatorial contest a Mikulski vs. Hogan race?

Unlike Baker and Kamenetz, who are term-limited, Madaleno and McIntosh would have to sacrifice their legislative seats to run in 2018 — and both may also be in a position to move up to even more powerful positions in their respective chambers soon.

Jealous may have a unique ability to stir progressive activists; Ross may come forth with an inspiring and forward-looking message. But unless and until these guys check many of the political fundamentals boxes, we don’t know how to evaluate them, either.

So the Democratic race for governor is in a funny phase right now, with an interesting cast of characters and potentially intriguing scenarios to ponder. But the Democrats have still got a long way to go before they make the supremely confident Larry Hogan start to sweat.

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