By Laslo Boyd
A number of observers, including me, have wondered whether Attorney General Doug Gansler is waiting too long to get his campaign for governor up to full speed. The issue is certainly not whether he’s going to run. And it’s not whether he’s going to have enough money to fund his campaign. The question is whether he should be starting his public campaign now or at least soon.
The question got more attention recently after what one reporter called Lt. Governor Anthony Brown’s “jack rabbit start.” Brown formally kicked off his campaign and selected a Lt. Governor running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, at an unprecedentedly early date. He also picked up the endorsement of Congressman Elijah Cummings. Some have even suggested that Gansler has, by waiting, squandered the opportunity to be viewed as the inevitable Democratic nominee.
We won’t know until next June whether Gansler’s strategy was right or wrong. It is clear, however, that it’s the one he has had in mind for a very long time and that he’s not going to panic or change course because of anything that Brown is doing.
What’s the logic of waiting?
Even assuming that Brown has a decisive advantage going into the election — a proposition that Gansler surely does not accept—it is still true that both candidates will have to introduce themselves to the voters and make their cases for being elected. Neither holds an office that has any history of producing governors and neither is particularly well known statewide.
If you don’t start with high name recognition and a presumptive claim to the office — think Cory Booker in the upcoming New Jersey Senate race — the two routes to success with the demise of political machines are through television advertising or by building a political organization that identifies, mobilizes, and turns out voters on election day. Barack Obama had both in 2012, but neither of these candidates is likely to replicate his approach.
Gansler is opting for television as his way to win voters over to his side. He has already raised significantly more money that the combined total for Brown and Ulman. He will in all likelihood at least double his current total by the Primary next June. While there’s no guarantee of success, it is an approach that often works in statewide elections.
If you’re betting big time on a media campaign, waiting to get your campaign up and running has the benefit of not spending potential ad dollars on other expenses. And, again, investing in television rather than mailers or lawn signs or campaign buttons has become more and more a fact of life in modern elections.
Gansler will still have to hone a message and make the case that he has the experience and judgment to be governor. He will also have to navigate the surprises, mistakes and attacks that come with every campaign.
Will issues matter in this election? Hard to tell. Some Brown supporters argue that the proportion of African-American voters in a Democratic Primary is all that counts. Whether he has an automatic claim to them remains to be seen. Gansler is certainly counting on being able to hold down Brown’s margin in Prince George’s County—where he won in the 2006 Democratic Primary — and offset that with a big win in Montgomery County.
The outcome may then be decided in the Baltimore area. Can Brown run up a decisive victory in Baltimore City and will the turnout be high enough to make it significant? And what will happen in Baltimore County? That may well be a much more favorable jurisdiction for Gansler given historical voting patterns.
If you are Doug Gansler, you might be tempted to look at the Brown-Ulman ticket less as intimidating and more as a combination of two candidates with weaknesses. Brown was a poor third in fund raising and looks like he needed Ulman’s money to be competitive. Ulman, with an impressive record as Howard County Executive, was apparently unable to develop any real traction with voters in the year that he has been an active, albeit unannounced, candidate.
Gansler may have wished that Elijah Cummings stayed out of the race, but that wasn’t ever likely. How actively he supports Brown will be the more interesting question. And then there’s Martin O’Malley. For Gansler, the governor’s support was never a possibility and he has already started distancing himself from some of O’Malley’s policies. That will be much harder for Brown to do.
Candidates pick campaign strategies based upon their assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses and an appraisal of who their opponents will be. Gansler has already benefited from Comptroller Peter Franchot, also from Montgomery County, deciding not to run. The impact of Ulman joining Brown may be harder to sort out, but does not yet seem like a game changer.
At this point, Doug Gansler is undoubtedly very comfortable with his decision to wait until the fall before formally kicking off his campaign.
Laslo Boyd writes and consults about public policy, government, and politics. He is a regulator contributor to Center Maryland. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent Center Maryland columns by Laslo Boyd: