Against the Grain

Democrats Blowing Winnable Governor Races

By nominating progressives in battleground states, Democrats are improving the GOP’s chances of winning consequential contests. Just look to liberal Maryland as a textbook example.

Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous addresses supporters at an election-night party June 26 in Baltimore.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Sept. 2, 2018, 6 a.m.

DUNDALK, Md. — The crowd cheering on Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on a lazy August weekend in the working-class suburban Baltimore town of Dundalk wasn’t your typical partisan audience. It included an African-American medical assistant disillusioned by Democratic nominee Ben Jealous and a local business leader who backed former Gov. Martin O’Malley only to become disaffected with the Democrat's tax hikes.

Hogan’s ability to build a broad coalition is testament to his engaging personality, record of economic growth during his tenure, and an eagerness to split from President Trump on myriad issues. But the governor’s commanding lead over Democrat Ben Jealous is also a product of the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch in Maryland, a dynamic that is replicating itself in other pivotal governors’ races across the country.

Democrats nominated Jealous, a former NAACP president, to face Hogan. He’s a dream candidate for progressives: a Bernie Sanders acolyte who advocates for single-payer health insurance, free college tuition, and the legalization of marijuana among other liberal priorities. He defeated a relatively moderate, business-friendly opponent in Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker III, making the argument that the only way to defeat the popular Hogan was by rallying the base across a liberal state like Maryland.

So far, that strategy hasn’t panned out. Republican-aligned groups have spent millions tagging Jealous as an extremist, targeting his single-payer health care proposal. He dropped an expletive at a Washington Post reporter who asked if he was a socialist at a press conference. Public polls show his negatives unusually high for a first-time candidate, and he’s struggling to consolidate support in majority-minority Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. Jealous hasn’t raised money to match his national profile, and is running low on campaign cash, according to new campaign finance filings.

Dundalk’s blue-collar slice of Baltimore County is part of Hogan’s base in the November election, and is reflective of the challenges that Democrats face with working-class white voters across the country. Democrats held the area’s surrounding state Senate district for over 70 years before Hogan’s upset victory in 2014. In that election, Hogan won the district by a whopping 51 points and his dominant showing in bellwether Baltimore County provided most of his victory margin. “Old-time Democrats are now moderate Republicans,” said GOP state delegate Bob Long, betting on Hogan’s coattails for his reelection.

At the rally, Hogan relished portraying Jealous as a tax-friendly, soft-on-crime liberal. “There’s only one place he wants to cut spending in Maryland: He wants to cut the public-safety budget in half, fire thousands of public-safety officers, and release thousands of violent criminals onto the streets. Does that sound like something Dundalk wants?” Hogan said. In an interview with National Journal, Hogan quipped: “He’s so far-left he makes Martin O’Malley look like a Republican.”

Michele Curbeam, a self-identified Democrat, brought her two daughters to see the governor, and said she would be voting for Hogan in November, citing his support for public education and law enforcement. Asked what she thought of Jealous, the African-American medical assistant said: “I don’t like all his cursing. That doesn’t show much self-control.”

Mike Galiazzo, the president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland, called himself a liberal but a stalwart Hogan supporter. “I’ve been a liberal Democrat my whole life. But the Democrats, quite frankly, failed to take care of the manufacturing community in a way that created jobs. Their solution for manufacturing was to tell anyone they weren’t smart enough for manufacturing and to get retrained,” Galiazzo said.

These Democratic defections in the Maryland governor race offer a cautionary sign to the party, betting that a crop of true-blue progressives can win pivotal gubernatorial contests across the country. Democrats attribute Hogan’s lead to his widespread popularity and independent profile, and now believe that this race was near-impossible to win from the start. But the Republican Governors Association spent more than $2 million on ads attacking Jealous over his liberal policy positions, suggesting they didn’t view this race as a foregone conclusion. And Jealous’ underwater image—33 percent view him favorably, 34 percent unfavorably, according to an August Gonzales Research survey—show those criticisms have been brutally effective. (Also worth noting: Maryland has only reelected a Republican governor once in its history, and Hogan is running in a very rough environment for the GOP.)

The public’s willingness to embrace progressivism will be tested in at least three other pivotal governor’s races in November. In an upset, Florida Democrats nominated Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, another Bernie Sanders ally who would be the first African-American governor of the state. In Arizona, Democrats chose David Garcia, an educator vying to be the first Hispanic governor in over 40 years and whose immigration views are well to the left of typical statewide candidates. And in Georgia, former state legislative leader Stacey Abrams has become a national icon for her strategy of reaching out to new voters instead of relying on persuading suburbanites. In all these races, Democrats are hoping to change the electorate with a message that rallies liberal nonwhite voters to the polls even if it risks losing some typical swing voters.

The difference in these campaigns is that unlike Hogan, the GOP nominees (especially Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp) are just as far to the right, potentially neutralizing the Democrats’ vulnerabilities. But all are running in more conservative states, including two Deep South battlegrounds where liberalism has always been a tough sell.

In fact, Republican operatives are already planning to unveil similar socialist-themed attacks against other progressive candidates. In Florida, Republican strategists note that the “socialist” label is particularly resonant with Hispanics, many of whom associate the description with the totalitarian regimes in Cuba and Venezuela. Even before the primary, Republicans spent money in Arizona against Garcia over his position on immigration.

Maryland Democrats are fully aware of the potency of these attacks, even in one of the most liberal states in the country. Hogan started his own race in solid position given his high approval ratings, but his campaign was wary that a blue wave could overwhelm his personal favorability. They tagged Jealous as too extreme early on, and his campaign never tried to effectively pivot to the center.

The next few weeks will be important for newly minted gubernatorial candidates like Garcia and Gillum to define themselves before the opposition does it for them. Hogan’s success in Maryland isn’t just an illustration of how bipartisanship is a political winner. It’s a demonstration that candidates out of the mainstream can all too easily cost a party winnable races.

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