Josh Kurtz: Why the Rush (Hour)?

By Josh Kurtz

If nothing else, Anthony Brown will learn just how many truly committed supporters he has when he announces his candidacy for governor late this Friday afternoon at Prince George’s Community College.

After all, it’s asking a lot of people to navigate D.C.’s rush hour on the Friday before Mother‘s Day, when there will be the usual pre-weekend traffic along with motorists heading out of town to visit Mom. So it’ll be instructive to see who turns up in Largo (Brown will also have events Saturday in Silver Spring, Frederick and Baltimore).

The timing of Brown’s announcement is just one of the puzzling things his campaign has done recently. So too was the apparent decision to leak word that Brown and Ken Ulman were in preliminary discussions over Ulman joining Brown’s ticket. It begs the question: Who’s in charge over there?

All that said, Brown enters the campaign as the frontrunner to succeed Martin O’Malley. Polls say it’s so, and so do many of the fundamentals of the Democratic race. Brown is a disciplined, determined campaigner, with a sterling resume, an obvious appeal to key blocs of the electorate, and the ability to benefit from all the groundwork O’Malley has laid for him during the past seven years. It’s clear he’s putting campaign infrastructure in place in every part of the state.

Which doesn’t mean victory is guaranteed. Frontrunners, after all, lose all the time — and there are elements to Brown’s personality and his campaign that make you think he is capable of blowing it.

But are Brown’s Democratic opponents — Doug Gansler, Heather Mizeur and, for now, Ulman — capable of taking advantage if he stumbles?

All three seem formidable in their own ways. But all have obvious flaws.

Mizeur is running an energetic and smart grass-roots campaign. She’s got a small but effective campaign team in place, and a vocal and committed corps of supporters — not just in her home base, but all over the state.

Mizeur’s second-place showing in the straw poll at last week’s Western Maryland Democratic summit should be a wake-up call for her opponents. She has an impressive array of national political contacts and potential donors — far more than any typical two-term state legislator.

But at this early stage it’s still hard to see a path to victory for a lesbian from left-wing Takoma Park whose campaign, the last time anybody checked, was badly underfunded. However committed her supporters, however strategic her campaign, that does not necessarily translate into widespread appeal. Was her showing at the Western Maryland confab a harbinger of things to come, or akin to Michele Bachmann winning the Ames, Iowa, GOP straw poll in 2011?

Gansler continues to sit on more than $5 million in his campaign account — and continues to be a one-man political band, traveling the state, shaking hands, and urging elected officials and Democratic stalwarts in that cocky way of his to hop on his victory train before it leaves the station, because he’s planning to win every jurisdiction in the primary except for one (Prince George’s County).

Gansler also continues to insist that it’s too early to be ramping up a campaign. With Mizeur firing on all cylinders, with Brown about to be, that seems like a calculated risk. Brown, Mizeur and Ulman may never top Gansler on the fundraising front given his huge head start, but they will catch up some, so Gansler’s cash bulge fades as a strategic advantage if he doesn’t deploy at least some of it sooner rather than later.

It will also be interesting to see how Gansler begins to tackle the issues every candidate for governor needs to address. His job as attorney general has, depending on your perspective, either inoculated him or cocooned him from some of the biggest political controversies of the past few years, where other officeholders have been required to take leadership positions (and risks).

It has been assumed that Gansler would try to play in left field in the run-up to the primary, that he’d talk about his support for gay marriage and the environment and political reform. Instead, he may be tacking right, restating his support for the death penalty and telling The Washington Post recently that he opposes the new tax hikes designed to replenish the state’s transportation trust fund.

With Mizeur planted on the left, with Brown the choice of much of the Democratic establishment and the inheritor of O’Malley’s liberal legacy, we may be witnessing Doug Gansler morph into Peter Franchot before our very eyes, because that may be where he finds the most space to roam (Franchot, of course, morphed into his current Joe Sixpack anti-tax persona from something not unlike Mizeur’s not so long ago).

Gansler is witty and has a forceful personality — he definitely surpasses Brown in the “Would you like to have a beer with this guy?” test. But his opponents see him as potentially gaffe-prone, and if they haven’t already begun sending trackers to his public appearances, it’s only a matter of time.

As for Ulman? Insiders like and respect him. He’s got a strong record as Howard County executive and by virtue of his position is the only one of the Democratic candidates who has actually run a government. He’s trying to claim to be the only Baltimore candidate in the race, and has proven to be a solid fundraiser.

But Ulman has been hurt by the recent loud talk that he could wind up as Brown’s running mate. It may eventually happen, and it‘s not a bad option for a promising young pol like Ulman. The Brown-Ulman marriage makes a lot of sense and could be a game-changing ticket — eventually.

But it seems unwise for them to be publicly discussing it so soon. Ulman’s star and fundraising ability are automatically diminished just by talk of it. It’s not like the other Democrats are going to be chased from the race by the prospect of a Brown-Ulman alliance at this stage. And it’s disingenuous for Ulman to continue collecting money if he’s going to team up with Brown.

So how can Brown lose?

Let us count the ways: He’s stiff and comes off as arrogant. He has admirers and allies, but not many close political friends. In the activist community, no one is jumping out of bed in the morning thinking, “I’ve got to work to elect Anthony Brown governor today,” the way Mizeur’s supporters are.

If there is any kind of “O’Malley Fatigue” in the electorate, Brown will pay the price. Gansler is going to remind voters that he was an early supporter of Barack Obama’s during the 2008 presidential race, while Brown, despite being a law school classmate of the president’s, followed O’Malley’s lead and endorsed Hillary Clinton.

And a frontrunner’s campaign always has a unique set of challenges: Too much money going out the door, too many VIP’s and know-it-all’s offering their opinions without really helping, an air of inevitably that dampens volunteers‘ enthusiasm, and an inability to adapt quickly when things start to go awry. Just ask…Hillary Clinton!

But if the gubernatorial primary were like the Preakness, Brown would be Orb in the early line, and based on prior performances and handicappers’ intuition, it would be hard not to bet the chalk.

If he’s able to inspire African-American voters and gets even three-quarters of the black vote, he starts the primary with a base of about 35 percent. Remember, the black turnout exceeded the white turnout in last year’s presidential election for the first time in history — and now Brown is poised to make history. He has assiduously courted his fellow veterans — and about one-fifth of Maryland households are military households. He has reached out to the business community in ways O’Malley hasn’t, and seems uniquely equipped among the Democratic candidates to talk about jobs and economic development. He can speak about all aspects of state government fluently.

And if history is any guide, expect Bill Clinton to be campaigning for Brown at some strategic moment. He has stumped for many candidates in contested Democratic primaries who endorsed his wife in 2008 (see John Delaney), and a clear majority of them have won.

So enjoy your first moment in the sun this week, Lt. Gov. Brown. Let’s see what you do with it.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

House Cleaning

Reality Check (in Four Parts)

Winners and Losers

Filing Deadline Quietly Changed to Early January

Stations of the Cross and the Station That’s Become a Cross to Bear

Fools Rushern In

A Sense of the Senate