Tip Sheet on the Democratic Candidates for Governor

By Josh Kurtz

It’s after Labor Day, and two more Democratic candidates for governor are formally joining the race this week: Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz gets in Monday, with a rally in front of the county courthouse in Towson, and former Obama administration official Krishanti Vignarajah enters Tuesday, with an appearance at her childhood home in Baltimore.

So it seems like a good time to size up the seven-candidate Democratic field.

What’s noteworthy about this race is how there isn’t a true frontrunner. Most election cycles, one Democrat seems way ahead – or has been pre-selected by party leaders, or both.

By the normal metrics of Maryland politics, Kamenetz and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker should be the favorites for the Democratic nomination. They’re veteran officeholders in large, important jurisdictions, with solid records, good stories to tell, and a lifetime of relationships with party elders.

But let’s face it: They aren’t all that well known – even to party activists, let alone to average voters. When it comes to laying the groundwork for a statewide campaign, each has traveled the state some – but far less, it seems, than most successful gubernatorial contenders have at similar stages of past elections. Each county executive has flaws and skeptics – and critics at home.

And this is no normal election cycle.

With Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in Government House, with President Trump in the White House, the Democratic electorate is angry, confused and frustrated – but also incredibly unfocused. There’s plenty of energy at the national level – but Democratic activists seem just as likely to want to head down to the National Mall to shake their fists than do the hard work of political organizing, especially at the state and local level.

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Krishanti Vignarajah, pictured with her husband Collin O’Mara and daughter Alana, formally joins the gubernatorial race on Tuesday.

By most traditional measures, 2018 should be a good Democratic year nationally – as off-year elections usually are for the party out of power – and that should trickle down to Maryland. But Trump has so scrambled the political calculus that it’s hard to know what’s going to happen and where voters truly are. And Hogan remains very popular and is strategically brilliant.

Are Democrats in any way prepared to take advantage of the opportunities Trump presents them? Can they convince Marylanders to fire Hogan and hire them? Do Democrats even know how to turn out voters anymore when someone not named Barack Obama is at the top of the ticket?

Here in Maryland, will Democrats vote with their heads or their hearts when they select a nominee to take on Hogan? Will they think strategically? Will the creaking party establishment’s grip on the nomination process ever be broken? It’s noteworthy that most of the Democratic gubernatorial contenders this cycle are unconventional, first-time candidates. Other than Baker and Kamenetz, state Sen. Rich Madaleno is the only elected official running.

Any one of them can win the nomination. In the era of Trump, does anyone want to argue otherwise?

But Maryland Democrats face this dilemma: Does the need for a big base turnout in November 2018 actually work against the best interests of the Democratic state senators in conservative districts who are struggling to hang on? If Democrats look like they’re going to lose the gubernatorial election, is it better to nominate someone who won’t kill them down-ballot, or someone who is likely to excite certain segments of the electorate and help the party build for the future?

We don’t expect the field of gubernatorial contenders to look the same on the filing deadline, Feb. 27, as it does today. We don’t know if Maya Rockeymoore, the wife of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D), is going to join the race. Or if anyone else noteworthy is going to get in. We don’t know how many of the current contenders are going to make it to the starting gate.

It’s possible that the mid-January campaign finance reports will serve as the first unofficial primary and winnow the field. It’s also possible that some of the current candidates will team up.

These questions and more will affect the outcome of next June’s gubernatorial primary. And, oh yeah, the candidates actually have to run good races to win.

So without further ado, we bring you the early scouting report on the seven leading Democrats, in reverse alphabetical order. Next time we do this we’ll aim to offer odds on each candidate’s chances; it’s impossible to do so now.

 

Krishanti Vignarajah

Upside: The freshest of fresh faces, with an inspiring life story, smarts, an adorable family and impeccable Obama connections. She’ll benefit if she remains the only woman in the race – especially if national women’s groups get behind her.

Downside: Um, is she even going to make it to the ballot? Is she eligible to serve as governor? The way those questions came to light as soon as she declared her intention to run hurt her a lot – at least with insiders (Chances are, most voters weren’t paying attention). She must find her footing and start to articulate real policy prescriptions.

Can be the nominee if…She stays on the ballot, gets adequate funding, and successfully appeals to younger and disenfranchised voters. Frequent appearances by Michelle Obama would help immensely.

 

Jim Shea

Upside: Well-connected insider who is emphasizing two core issues, education and transportation in the early stages of the campaign. An accomplished lawyer, businessman and philanthropist who will not need much on-the-job training and appears to be raising money at a vigorous pace. Has also been taking on Hogan pretty aggressively.

Downside: Introvert with few obvious political skills. Knows the players but may not know how to persuade them to embrace his candidacy or his agenda. His connections from his time leading the Venable law firm have helped him raise early money, but that is not an infinite pool from which to fish.

Can be the nominee if…Voters want a grown-up without a lifetime in elective office.

 

Alec Ross

Upside: Smart, unconventional and future-oriented candidate whose message, if amplified properly, can resonate in forgotten communities in every corner of the state. He’s daring to be different and has some savvy veterans of former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s campaigns advising him, along with useful Clinton and Obama connections.

Downside: Looks like a kid, and the tech guru schitck only goes so far. Outside of his pals in Baltimore, a lot of voters are going to wonder who the hell he is.

Can be the nominee if…Voters are sick of the conventional and really want to thumb their noses at the establishment.

 

Rich Madaleno

Upside: Smartest guy in the field who knows the issues cold – especially budgetary matters – and is doing the best job of articulating the Democrats’ case against Hogan. Has an appealing, unconventional family and the admiration of progressive insiders who have worked with him in Annapolis on an array of issues.

Downside: Doubts persist about his ability to raise serious money. Has a tendency to be wordy and talk in legislative speak on the campaign trail. May overestimate his ability to generate a big vote in Montgomery County.

Can be the nominee if…He posts a big fundraising number in January, leads the resistance to Hogan during the legislative session, and works hard to win over voters outside his political comfort zone.

 

Kevin Kamenetz

Upside: Unparalleled record of electoral success in a jurisdiction where Democrats must do well. Has steered a moderate course as county executive, holding the line on taxes, attracting new development and overseeing a largely successful school system. Has the best fundraising to date in the Democratic field and is attempting to forge close ties to political, business and community leaders in Baltimore city.

Downside: Does anybody really like this guy? That may be insider chatter, but real voters have seen his temper on occasion. His attempt to move to the left as he prepares for a statewide campaign hasn’t been completely seamless, and Hogan and his allies are sure to exploit the school air conditioner issue if he wins the Democratic primary.

Can be the nominee if…He keeps smiling. And continues to articulate consistent progressive views while also focusing on practical solutions and making some inroads in the D.C. suburbs.

 

Ben Jealous

Upside: Strong and passionate populist who is staking out bold progressive positions and benefits from his association with Bernie Sanders. Has the potential to be a formidable fundraiser and has Maryland Working Families, which is aligned with unions that excel at turning out the vote, in his corner.

Downside: His ties to Maryland seem pretty tenuous despite his best efforts to spin them, and his policy proposals – so far – seem generic and national rather than specific to the Free State. He’s a great orator but not a natural campaigner, and his rhetoric and positions scare some mainstream Democrats. Remember, Hillary Clinton beat Sanders by 29 points in the 2016 Maryland presidential primary.

Can be the nominee if…He builds an unshakable coalition of progressives, minorities and labor, fulfills his fundraising potential, and hones his message.

 

Rushern Baker

Upside: Genuinely good guy who has guided Prince George’s County through tough times and has emerged with some real reforms and a revitalized business environment to boast about. Knows Annapolis, knows how the state works, and may be the closest thing to an establishment favorite in this race.

Downside: Dreary fundraiser whose political instincts aren’t always great and who needs a better political operation. Prince George’s still faces multiple challenges and it’s easy to predict the attack lines Hogan will use against him, whether they’re fair or not: Higher taxes, persistent corruption, and questionable test scores in the public schools, etc.

Can be the nominee if…His fundraising and political shop improve and if Jealous doesn’t cut too deeply into his ability to attract a big African-American vote.

One comment

  • I am a Democrat and undecided about my pick in the governor’s race. Count me as among the “angry, confused and frustrated.” I’d like to focus on a choice, but none stand out yet in this large field. I am no fan of Governor Hogan, but he’s no Donald Trump or extreme right ideologue. He is more like Chris Christie, behaving like King Larry and a bombastic bully when he doesn’t get his way. Yet Hogan will be tough to beat. In 2011, he fired up a bus that deftly ran over other Republicans in his way to the 2014 primary and continued putting metal to the pedal to crush Anthony Brown with a message Hogan had honed for the past 3 plus years since his launch of Change Maryland. As Governor, however, he’s done little of substance but build roads with the gas tax that candidate Hogan railed against and change Peter Franchot from Takoma Park liberal into window dressing for his claim of bipartisanship. But Hogan challengers will need to do more than expose Hogan’s thin record. They will need to persuade me and other voters that we will be better off with new leadership and be able to show us what kind of new leadership they offer.

    My early assessments of the candidates are that Ms. Vignarajah is the best outside the box candidate. It would be a popcorn worthy event to see her debate Hogan. Voters might look past her lack of executive leadership but I am not sure they will buy her “that’s where my crash pad was” excuse for voting in DC, and not in Maryland (even absentee), and I am not sure the courts will either. Her incredible skills and passion are very much needed in Maryland, but going for governor out of the gate on her return to Maryland is punching above her weight class. I pray she re-considers and runs for a legislative seat instead.

    Jim Shea: He appears to be earnest and he’s spent years putting his tremendous talents to public service in Maryland, which is commendable. He’s the opposite of Ms. Vignarajah in this regard. At the same time, he’s always been on the B list and never made it to the A list on candidate lists over the years and maybe there’s a reason why. He’ll need more sparkle to get my attention at the top of the ticket.

    Alec Ross: He’s looks (and is) young, but still has 1 year on Ben Jealous and 7 years on Ms. Vignarajah. His ideas are intriguing and if he can translate them into a vision for Maryland, he might succeed in getting my vote. I hope he reads Al Franken’s latest book, another author turned politician, to learn how the very intellectual Franken connected with the people of Minnesota during his first run for Senate.

    Ben Jealous: Poised to be Maryland’s Bernie Sanders, but as a Hillary supporter, his incessant touting of his close connection to Bernie is a turn-off for me. He does have solid executive experience leading a national organization and has helped win progressive battles in Maryland so I haven’t written him off entirely yet.

    Rich Madaleno: He’s closer to getting my vote than most others because Senator Madaleno seems to appreciate and understand what good government is. He also seems very down to earth. I’m convinced that him just being who he is—an ordinary family man—helped win the fight for marriage equality. Oddly, despite the history making moment should he be elected governor, I worry voters may view him as too establishment.

    Rushern Baker: He checks many of my boxes, yet he hasn’t closed the deal. I am tired of backing losing candidates and fear 2018, like 2016, will not be a good one for insider candidates. I will be keeping my eyes open for something that moves the needle for Baker, but time is running out.

    Kevin Kamenetz: I don’t have interest in him because his campaign looks and feels too cookie cutter. That standard playbook has always worked for him but between Hogan’s consistent attacks on him and his own self-inflicted wounds, I don’t think Kamenetz is the guy for Democrats to put against Hogan because despite having a very strong record on paper, the “unlikeable” label seems to have stuck to him.

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