Photo above: Larry Hogan and Anthony Brown
By Todd Eberly
The second Maryland gubernatorial debate is in the can (or on the web…) and, for me anyway, the results mirrored the first debate. Both Anthony Browne and Larry Hogan performed well, neither made any serious mistakes, and neither scored any major blows. It was a tie. The debate itself, however, came across as a disorganized mess. But more on that later.
Anthony Brown in serious trouble
After 8 years as Lt. Gov. Brown is having serious trouble sealing the deal with voters in a state that favors his party by a 2-to-1 margin. There are many causes for his problems.
1) The national and the Maryland economy remain weak. Recent reports show that middle class Americans have seen all the income gains made between the mid-1990s and 2009 disappear in the last five years. In Maryland, wages have stagnated, unemployment is higher than the national average, and a record number of people have simply dropped out of the labor force. Good luck being the quasi-incumbent running in the midst of all of that.
2) Martin O’Malley is unpopular. No doubt part of O’Malley’s collapse is linked to the poor economy, but I think it’s linked as well to a sense that at a time of need within the state O’Malley is touring Iowa and New Hampshire in hopes of being president. I think folks see in Brown another rising star of the Democratic party and wonder if he’ll follow O’Malley’s example and put national ambitions ahead of his state.
3) Even after eight years, most folks don’t know Anthony Brown. Brown jumped into the governor’s race before anyone else, but even as he was securing a running mate and endorsements he was not introducing himself to voters. His campaign was structured around the assumption that Brown would be the presumptive frontrunner in the primary and that the general election would be a mere formality. As such, his campaign has shielded him from the press and the public. He does not attend unscripted events and prefers to meet with friendly audiences. As to the press, he rarely does interviews and his campaign manager has had more to say about Brown’s agenda than has Brown.
No cake walk
It has been clear for weeks that the general election will not be a cake walk. And yet, the Brown campaign refuses to change strategy. They need to get Brown out in public. They need him in front of cameras and talking with reporters. The Baltimore Sun poll found that Brown is supported by only 71% of Democrats and he’s losing independent voters by double digits. Worse, fully 25% of Brown’s supporters are open to changing their mind.
Based on current polling, if only half that many do change their minds then Brown loses. Brown has been so committed to telling voters why they shouldn’t vote for Hogan that he forget to tell them why they should vote for him. A better Maryland for more Marylanders is not a reason, it’s barely even a bumper sticker. In the debate today, he repeatedly reminded voters that the election is about the future – but he offered little regarding what that future would involve.
Best moments, worst moments for Brown
Brown’s best moment was his discussion of the Maryland gun control bill. His passion was clear and when he indicated that Hogan said one thing in public and another in private he was clearly trying to raise doubts in voters’ minds about Hogan’s promises to not try to undo “settled law” regarding guns, abortion, or same-sex marriage. His closing statement in which he linked his military service to his public service was strong as well.
Brown’s worst moment was attempt to belittle Hogan’s understanding of the complexities involved in managing a state by saying to Hogan that he was a “small” business owner. In prior debates, Brown has said small businesses are the backbone of the economy and that he supports small businesses, but I guess he just doesn’t think small business owners are smart enough to govern? It was a mistake.
Brown’s non-answer to the question about funding pre-K was a bad moment as well. He essentially said that if the gambling revenue isn’t there then Maryland will do what it has always done to deal with shortfalls. He then paused and quickly added, “by not raising taxes…”
Well Maryland did raise taxes to deal with prior shortfalls. We raised taxes, froze spending, raided trust funds, shifted costs to counties, and skipped out on pension obligations. Hogan should’ve asked Brown which of those options he’d consider should the gambling money not materialize.
Larry Hogan still focused on the economy
Hogan continues to stay focused on the economy. Some are suggesting that he needs to branch out, but that’s only partially true. Hogan is a Republican running in a state where independent and unaffiliated voters will soon outnumber registered Republicans. His window of opportunity is narrow.
A recent poll found that by a 48-44% margin, Marylanders believe the state is going in the wrong direction – a 4 point margin. In 2002, Bob Ehrlich defeated a woefully incompetent candidate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, by about 3 points. That margin is the best that Hogan or any other Republican can expect. Hogan needs to win the 48% who think Maryland is going the wrong way.
Given that Democrats control every aspect of statewide governance, it’s hard to imagine that many of the 48% blame Republicans for the state’s problems. But Hogan is tainted as well by the national GOP and by the lingering remnants of the Tea Party. For many in Maryland, national Republicans are responsible for the government shutdowns and there is no doubt that the national GOP continues to oppose abortion rights and is the major roadblock to national gun control legislation.
Shift the focus to the people
Though Hogan may not support the national party on any of those issues, the “R” after his name means that for many voters those issues hang around his neck. Hogan needs to do better than simply say, it’s settled law. Shift the focus more to the people. Say that if elected he will serve the people and their agenda. They’ve spoken on same-sex marriage, abortion, and in state tuition for undocumented kids. Sometimes the job of those we elect is to stop and listen to the people.
Then he needs to turn that around and say that too often those in Annapolis have forgotten to listen – they refused to hear the people on the sales tax, the gas tax, the rain tax. They failed to hear the people when they raided trust funds dedicated to the bay. That’s what he needs to do.
Best moment for Hogan in a flawed report
Hogan’s best moment was in his rebuttal to a question about the errors in his campaign’s plan to save $1.7 billion in fraud, waste, and abuse. The report is full of errors and Hogan couldn’t really defend it, but rather than focus on that, Brown pointed to his own plan that has identified $1.5 billion in savings. Hogan responded with the perfect question — if you know the state is wasting $1.5 billion per year why haven’t you fixed it?
But next time, Hogan needs to go after Brown’s plan. The $1.5 billion will never materialize. Consider two items from the plan. Brown’s plan says that Maryland is spending $105 million each year on improper Medicaid payments. If true, the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (which covers half on Maryland’s Medicaid costs) would likely demand an audit of those payments and demand that the state reimburse the federal government – so that’s money lost.
Brown’s plan also calls for $30 million in savings by reducing chronic diseases among state employees. Folks, chronic diseases are the leading cost drivers in the health care system. If we could manage chronic diseases then our nation’s long term spending problems (all linked to Medicare and Medicaid) would be solved. So the notion that Maryland will solve a problem among state employees what no nation has managed to control seems unlikely. It wouldn’t hurt for Hogan to point to specific problems like those.
Hogan’s worst moment
Hogan’s worst moment? He was too thin skinned when Brown was linking him to the Ehrlich administration. I’m not sure why he was so defensive. His retort that it wasn’t Ehrlich-Hogan but it is O’Malley-Brown was weakened by his defensive tone. Next time Brown says Marylanders don’t want to return to the “dark days” Hogan should just say that during those dark days unemployment was lower and wages were actually growing.
Hogan’s other worse moment was his weak answer on gun control. Suggesting that he opposed a bill because it didn’t do enough is a bad answer and it undercuts his message that he’s a pragmatist. You know who reject bills because they don’t go far enough? Ideologues. They want all or nothing and usually get nothing. Hogan needs a better answer and Brown needs to keep hitting on that issue.
The debate itself: too many topics
I got the feeling that the moderators decided that they would try to cover every topic that people felt had been ignored in the first debate – bad idea. Sometimes topics are ignored for a reason. Doug Gansler tried again and again to get traction on the failed health exchange website — it never connected with voters. Move on.
Perhaps the better and more relevant question would be how will the tens of thousands of folks newly enrolled in Medicaid (mostly adults) find a doctor in a program that mainly serves children?
By the state’s own admission there were too few doctors in about 40% of the state to meet the needs of Medicaid enrollees BEFORE the expansion (pages 9-10 of the linked report). After the expansion many Marylanders will find that their new insurance card will simply be a license to hunt for a doctor who will take it.
It was also unclear just what the rules of the debate were. Was it response, rebuttal, rebuttal response? That seemed to be the case, but at times it was clearly response, rebuttal, rebuttal response, rebuttal response response, and once there was a rebuttal response response response…
Moderators need to enforce the rules and keep the debate moving. And what was with the climate change question – the moderator directed the candidates to give a one word answer if possible. Really?
I thought the reference to questions coming in via twitter and social media was distracting and time consuming. Who cares where the question came from? If it’s a good question, just ask it quickly and let the candidates reply. And I thought it was odd how a moderator would sometimes prompt another moderator – “did you have a follow up that you wanted to ask regarding my question?”
If a moderator has a follow up, he or she will ask it. The debate was as long as the prior debate, but it felt shorter and less substantive, and not because of the candidates. Moderators should keep the train running on time, ask questions, and otherwise blend into the background. I like and respect each of the moderators, but I think a three person panel, especially three people crammed around a little table, was just a bad idea.
In the end, a tie
So I end this review much as I did the first review – it was a tie. This is still Brown’s race to lose (this is Maryland after all), but Hogan is a serious threat. I think turn-out will be awful and right now, Hogan is ahead among the voters who most reliably turn-out.
Todd Eberly is associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.