The Race Is On!

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

By Barry Rascovar / May 21, 2013

LT. GOV. ANTHONY BROWN couldn’t even wait till the Preakness had run its course at Pimlico to announce the obvious: he’s running for governor next year.

He did it in an unorthodox fashion that some labeled bizarre. His kick-off took place at one of the worst possible media times of the week – very late on a Friday afternoon – and at an out-of-the-way location for much of the Maryland media (Largo). Then he followed the next day with mundane mini-events in Frederick and Baltimore City.

Except for the lavish praise from his boss, Gov. Martin O’Malley, Brown’s kick-off was underwhelming.

He cast himself as the uber -liberal in the race (though he’ll have trouble out-liberaling Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County, who says she, too, wants to be governor). Just think of him as “O’Malley-plus.” He wants more, more, more of every social welfare program that’s good for Maryland, and more, more, more of what O’Malley did as governor.

As far-left Congresswoman Donna Edwards told Brown’s kick-off crowd, “He cares about the things we care about.”

That pretty much boxes in Brown in this campaign. He’s running after the left-of-center votes within the Democratic Party, building on a foundation of African-American support and labor unions.
That’s not a bad strategy given the liberal leanings of Democrats in Maryland.

The problem is that this leaves his main opponent, Attorney General Dough Gansler, a huge opening to sweep up the rest of the Democratic vote on June 24 next year. Thanks to the departure of Comptroller Peter Franchot from the governor’s race, Gansler can slide to the center, or even slightly right of center on some issues.

He’s already done that in opposing O’Malley’s gasoline tax increase and he’ll do it on other issues, too. He wasn’t involved in crafting and pushing through controversial legislation over the past seven years. But Brown was.

Gansler now can portray himself as a populist critic of the big-spending, tax-raising O’Malley-Brown administration, just like Franchot would have done. At the same time Gansler has assiduously developed an enviable record as attorney general on social issues that plays well with liberal Democratic groups.

He also has a huge fund-raising lead that could grow now that Brown has a campaign staff to support for the next 13 months. Plus, Gansler won’t be tied down in Annapolis from January through mid-April while the legislature is in session. That could be a big advantage for a high-energy campaigner like Gansler.

Lurking on the horizon is another contender who could throw both Brown’s and Gansler’s plans into disarray: Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County.

In many ways, a Ruppersberger candidacy re-shuffles the political deck. He’s far better known than Brown or Gansler. Ruppersberger’s familiarity among voters is such that most of them refer to him simply as “Dutch.” That’s a big advantage.

Ruppersberger would immediately become the Baltimore-area candidate, but also the top vote-getter in rural parts of the state. He’s a “blue-dog Democrat” in Congress, a fiscal moderate slightly to the right of center but with a sparkling social record both on Capitol Hill and as Baltimore County Executive.

That could be a tough combination to beat, especially since Gansler and Brown (and Mizeur) are likely to split the Washington area vote. Meanwhile, Ruppersberger will pick up a good chunk of Baltimore City votes, thus denying Brown a Prince George’s County – Baltimore City axis.

The congressman’s real strength comes from the Baltimore suburbs, which he has represented for years – Harford County, Anne Arundel County and particularly heavy-voting Baltimore County.
He could become the immediate favorite – if he runs.

Giving up a seat in Congress is no small sacrifice, especially when you’re been a Big Wheel on the prestigious House Intelligence Committee. But Ruppersberger is term-limited on that panel next year, meaning a return to his status as a run-of-the-mill member of the minority party.

Besides, Ruppersberger loved running Baltimore County where he displayed solid skills as a manager and chief executive. He also would enter the race unencumbered by the controversies that now dog O’Malley and Brown – especially the tax issue.

That’s only one reason next year’s gubernatorial election is so hard to predict. Gansler has hordes of campaign cash. Brown has O’Malley’s and party establishment backing. Ruppersberger has the broadest potential voter base.

Will Dutch ditch the race? Will Mizeur steal votes from both Brown and Gansler? Will Democrats support an O’Malley clone or is voter fatigue setting in after two terms?

And how will Democratic turnout affect the outcome?

Legislators unwisely pushed the 2014 primary back to late June rather than in the fall. That’s a big change for voters. History shows early Maryland primaries attract small turnouts. History also shows the lowest turnouts are usually in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City.

That does not bode well for Brown, who also is fighting the curse of Maryland lieutenant governors. Not one has succeeded his or her boss in the state’s top job.

So take your pick. Next year’s race for governor will be just as tough to handicap as Oxbow’s unexpected 15-1 triumph in this year’s Preakness classic.