Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s impending term-limited departure has opened a golden opportunity for Democrats to flip control of a governor’s mansion this year, setting off a free-for-all for the party’s nomination.
Still, the leaderboard remains murky less than two months from the midsummer primary as 10 contenders jockey for position and struggle to get voters’ attention.
“The most important thing in this race may not be policy, but getting your voters to turn out because, in the middle of July, people are focused on vacations. They are not focused on politics,” said John G. Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County.
The race has been further muddled by the candidates’ struggle to distance themselves from one another on policy.
“This race has been more about personality than policy,” Mr. Dedie said. “There has not been a defining wedge issue.”
State Comptroller Peter Franchot says the record he has built over his three-plus decades in state government proves he has the skills and experience to create jobs, expand access to health care and improve the education system.
Wes Moore, a political newcomer, is centering his message on inequality and presenting himself as a political outsider and a fresh face with a wealth of experience derived from his service as a combat veteran, bestselling author and CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, an anti-poverty organization based in New York.
“It is difficult to talk about how you are going to fix the system when you’re not willing to acknowledge that your fingerprints are all over the system that needs fixing,” Mr. Moore said in a debate this year, dinging his rivals.
Another contender, former Democratic National Committee Chair Thomas E. Perez, boasts that he is from the “get stuff done” wing of the party. Mr. Perez says he has worked on the local, state and federal levels to advance “jobs, justice and opportunity” and make “sure everyone gets a fair shake.”
Mr. Perez boasts about his ties to former President Barack Obama, whom he served as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division and then secretary of labor.
Another Obama administration veteran, former Education Secretary John King, also is touting his ties to the former president and stressing the important role public institutions such as schools can play in improving quality of life.
Rushern Baker, playing up his experience as a former Prince George’s County executive and member of the state General Assembly, says he should be the next governor because he knows how to pass legislation that improves people’s lives.
Former State Attorney General Doug Gansler says he is the only one in the race with a background in criminal justice and is better prepared than his rivals to tackle rising crime.
“If you like having 400 murders a year, if you like what is going on in the criminal justice system here in Baltimore, you should seriously consider voting for one of my colleagues,” Mr. Gansler said earlier this year.
The leading candidates will have another chance to separate themselves from the pack when they meet for a debate Monday hosted by Maryland Public Television.
The primary is scheduled for July 19. Early voting runs from July 5-14.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election tracker, rates the Maryland contest as “lean” Democrat, making it the second most vulnerable Republican-held governorship next to Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker is not seeking a third term.
Maddie Anderson, a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association, said her party is confident it can beat whoever emerges from the Democrats’ melee.
“Gov. Larry Hogan’s continued popularity among Republicans, Democrats and independents proves that Marylanders want a pragmatic Republican leader to remain in the governor’s mansion come November,” she said.
The lack of polling has made the race hard to gauge.
Mr. Moore released a poll last month showing Mr. Franchot leading the pack with 19%, followed by Mr. Moore with 13%, Mr. Baker with 11%, Mr. Perez with 6%, Mr. King with 4% and Mr. Gansler with 3%.
Still, 42% of voters remain on the fence, according to the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group survey, hardening the sense that the race remains a toss-up.
“I don’t think voters have focused on this race, and they might not focus on this race until after the Fourth of July,” Mr. Diede said. “Then it could be pedal to the metal for the candidates.”
Mr. Moore said his poll, which showed his support on the rise, proved he has the momentum.
Mr. Moore won a straw poll of Democratic activists in Western Maryland last month, and he has been racking up endorsements, including from the powerful Maryland State Education Association teachers union.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks; former NAACP President Ben Jealous, the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee; and state Speaker of the House Adrienne A. Jones, the highest-ranking Black woman in the state, also support him.
Mr. Moore scored the endorsement of House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a veteran of Maryland politics, and is getting a helping hand from talk show titan Oprah Winfrey, who plans to hold a virtual fundraiser for him this month.
“The thing that is appealing about Wes Moore is the biography of Wes Moore,” Mr. Dedie said. “He has always had a strong Q-Rating in terms of likeability, and that is an important factor.”
Mr. Perez won backing from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several members of Congress. He also won endorsements from The Washington Post, the Service Employees International Union Locals 500 and 32BJ, and AFSCME Council 3 and AFSCME Council 67, the largest state employees union.
Mr. Perez is hoping that the strong union support will help him build a get-out-the-vote ground game. Mr. Franchot, meanwhile, has the backing of state Senate Majority Leader Nancy King and several other state and local officials.