What's At Stake At First Governor's Race Debate?

Oct 7, 2014

Republican Larry Hogan and Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown will debate Tuesday in Baltimore.
Credit Christopher Connelly / WYPR

Maryland’s gubernatorial hopefuls will share a stage for the first time Tuesday at a televised debate in Baltimore, and political observers expect candidates to show up ready for combat. But it’s unlikely it will as negative as the ad war the candidates have waged so far.

If you’re judging the governor’s race based on ads alone, it’s been a pretty nasty campaign. A report out of the Wesleyan Media Project says Maryland’s governor’s race has the highest percentage of negative ads out of all gubernatorial contests nationwide.

Just days into the general election, Hogan posted a web video calling Brown the most incompetent man in Maryland, and he’s been fielding ads saying the Lieutenant Governor is not fit for the job. Brown, in turn, has leveled charge after charge to paint Hogan as a socially conservative Tea Party Republican who’ll take the state backwards.

“The new normal is contrast. And doing as much as you can to prop yourself up while your opponent falls down,” said Andrew Feldman, a democratic campaign strategist.

Feldman says this dual strategy means mixing positive messages with a lot of attack ads. It also means very little focus on policy. So while Brown’s promoted his universal Pre-K plan and Hogan’s talked about tax reform, the issues have hardly been front and center.

“I know the wonks would like to hear more substantive policy debates. Unfortunately in our country right now that’s not what wins elections,” Feldman said.

Brown has published more than 150 pages of policy plans on his website. Hogan lags in that regard -- he has just a few paragraphs laying out his vision online. But Richard Cross, a columnist and former speechwriter for Republican former Gov. Bob Ehrlich, says it doesn’t matter. Cross says Hogan needs to focus on tying Brown to Gov. Martin O’Malley, not spelling out policy details.

“The challenger can win in Maryland by getting people upset about the job done by the administration in office,” Cross said.

Hogan likes to mix it up, Cross says, so expect Tuesday’s debate to be fractious, with the Republican hopeful pushing Brown to account for tax hikes and the state’s mediocre economic landscape. “Larry Hogan is by nature a kind of happy warrior of politics, so he enjoys this and he’s passionate about the issues he’s been pushing,” Cross said.

As for Brown’s goal at the debate, Democratic strategist Feldman says, “Brown needs to come off as kind of cool, calm and collected. He needs to make sure that he doesn’t get thrown off and he doesn’t stumble.”

But Goucher College’s Mileah Kromer says the campaign’s negative ads and lack of focus on policy proposals may be backfiring. In the semi-annual Goucher Poll that Kromer runs, released Tuesday, respondents were asked if they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Brown and Hogan, but not told which party the candidates represented. The results? Some 28 percent of Democrats didn’t know who Brown was, and 31 percent of Republicans said they didn’t know Hogan. And Kromer says that might signal disengagement from this race.

“Marylanders are disinterested and maybe just uninformed about what sets [the candidates] apart from each other, other than their party identification,” Kromer said. “I think it’s now time for both candidates to really come out and tell Marylanders what they’re about.”

At Tuesday’s debate at Baltimore’s CBS affiliate, WJZ, the candidates will be expected to lay out where they stand on a range of issues, but Donald F. Norris, who runs the public policy department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, says it’s easy to put too much emphasis on events like these.

“Debates don’t matter much, especially gubernatorial debates, because nobody watches them,” Norris said.

Back in 2010, the last time WJZ hosted a gubernatorial debate, the station drew about 129,000 viewers . More watched the simulcast on Maryland Public Television.  But all told, Norris says numbers like these are hardly high enough to tip the scale. Unless, he says, someone screws up.

“If somebody makes a big blunder it’ll be all over the television, all over the radio, in the newspaper --  you know: ‘Brown stumbles badly, Hogan doesn’t remember where Annapolis is’ whatever it may be,” Norris said.

So if that happens, we’ll be sure to let you know.

You can watch the debate tonight at 7:00 pm on WJZ (Channel 13 in Baltimore) or on Maryland Public Television.