Josh Kurtz: Turning Point?

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By: Josh Kurtz 

If Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) is elected governor, this week may go down as the turning point for his much-criticized campaign.

You could almost hear the cheering coming from Brown’s Upper Marlboro headquarters over the weekend when the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun published hits on Brown’s Republican opponent, businessman Larry Hogan.

None of the topics were a particularly fatal blow – first, both papers concluded that Hogan’s campaign had badly miscalculated some figures on cutting government spending, and the Post then followed up with a report that gun rights advocates are favorably inclined toward the Republican, even as he tries to take the issue off the table for this election. Last night, the Sun reported that Hogan’s campaign claim about Fortune 500 company losses under Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) was false.

But taken together, they provide the Brown campaign, in the bold black and white of good old fashioned newsprint, headlines that can be so devastatingly effective in negative TV and web ads.

It feels exquisitely (though not necessarily intentionally) timed – and like history repeating itself.

For the past several weeks, pundits and political insiders have been complaining about Brown’s lack of visibility on the campaign trail. He’s not laying out a vision, the criticism goes; he’s not connecting with voters, he’s stiff and risk-averse, he’s using a shop-worn national Democratic playbook to attack Hogan, and he’s depending on the state’s overwhelming Democratic voter enrollment – and the Democratic establishment’s political apparatus, which is pretty shop-worn as it is – to nudge him to victory.

It was exactly a year ago that many of the same complaints were being voiced about Brown – at the same time he was reeling due to the failure of the state health exchange website.

Then – bam! – the Post and Sun ran blockbuster back-to-back articles about Brown’s leading Democratic primary opponent, Attorney General Doug Gansler, the first about his improper use of his state vehicles and his treatment of state troopers, the other the infamous beach week party story. From that moment on, Gansler’s campaign was dead in the water, and Brown really didn’t have to say very much, using all the structural and institutional advantages he had to rack up a pretty easy victory.

It’s only natural to expect Brown to follow the same strategy in the final month of the campaign. The recent articles about Hogan may not knock him down to the canvass, but they do put him back on his heels. Best of all, from the Brown campaign’s perspective, they enable Brown and his allies to remain on the attack. That seems to be the one place where they feel like they’re on secure footing.

That’s too bad.

It’s standard operating procedure in politics to try to define your opponent. By highlighting guns and abortion, Brown’s campaign may as well be chanting, “Hogan is a Republican. Hogan is a Republican. Hogan is a Republican.” And in this very Democratic state, that’s a legitimate tactic, especially when Hogan is touting how many Democrats and independents signed up to follow his old Change Maryland website (it’s a dubious boast, when all we’re talking about is allegiance to a website). Lord knows, there’s a huge gender gap across the nation, which Democrats everywhere are trying to exploit, so why shouldn’t Brown?

The sad part is, by doing nothing but torching Hogan, Brown is missing an opportunity to not only define himself, but reveal a little bit about himself – and sell himself to voters.

With three debates scheduled over the next 11 days, this was presumed to be the week that Brown was finally going to take his picture off the milk carton of missing persons.

He still needs to fire up Democratic voters, many of whom aren’t even aware that an election is taking place – or if they are, seem less than enamored with their nominee.

If various public and private polls taken recently are to be believed – and there’s little reason to doubt them – the gubernatorial election is a lot closer, in this bluest of blue states, than it ought to be.

Democrats can blame the national political dynamic, which is undoubtedly bad for the party just about everywhere. They can blame the torrent of horrific national and international headlines, which have all but obliterated any media information that may be trickling out about the state elections. They can blame O’Malley’s middling-to-poor poll numbers in places where he used to be fairly popular, like Baltimore County, and the voters’ antipathy for high taxes and jitters over the state budget deficit, which O’Malley and Brown are being held accountable for.

But ultimately, the blame for Brown’s electoral struggles must rest with the candidate and the desultory campaign he’s been running.

We may not have reached the crisis point for Democrats that we saw at this stage of the 2002 campaign for governor between Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) and Congressman Bob Ehrlich (R). Brown’s campaign apparatus doesn’t seem nearly as top-heavy and chaotic as Townsend’s did. Brown at least has the sense to try to run a “base” campaign designed to turn out the most loyal of Democrats, in contrast to Townsend’s ill-advised, premature lurch to the middle. The state, if anything, is a little more Democratic than it was back then – and the 2002 election cycle, one year after 9-11, was historically unique.

But at least in 2002 there were a few voters out there who were enthusiastic about pulling the lever for Townsend – either because she was a woman, or because she was such a nice person, or because they were enchanted by the idea of a Camelot restoration. If there is any equivalent excitement for Brown’s candidacy, we have yet to see it.

The irony is, there is reason to be enthusiastic about Brown. One is the purely historic nature of his campaign. Hey Democrats, hey Marylanders, isn’t the idea that we could be electing the state’s first African-American governor – and just the third in U.S. history – worth celebrating?

What’s more, this is a smart, serious guy. He’s knowledgeable about the issues and the inner workings of state government, reliably progressive on most issues, and leaders of interest groups describe him as thoughtful and receptive to their suggestions. His military career automatically gives him a veneer of leadership.

Yet Brown is still laying an egg as a candidate.

But this is Maryland, so it probably doesn’t matter. Brown can keep on attacking, secure in the knowledge that a Democrat is almost certainly going to win statewide, regardless of the campaign he is running.

This may be a way to win an election. But it isn’t the way to instill much confidence in voters – or lead when the hard work of governing finally comes along.

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

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.