Campaign struggling, Gansler seeks the right message

Attorney general says he will fight the status quo

February 21, 2014|By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler took the stage at a Baltimore forum this week trailing in the polls, his fundraising advantage erased and big challenges ahead in his campaign for governor.

"Let me start by defining who I am — or who I like to believe I am," Gansler told the audience.

Political experts say Gansler should have done that months ago, after spending the early stage of the campaign responding to a string of controversies and letting his opponents define him instead. One opposition ad this week portrays him as having Republican ideals — in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.

Now, 21 points behind Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and with Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County chasing him in the polls, analysts say Gansler must come up with a consistent sales pitch — and soon — if he hopes to persuade enough undecided Democratic voters to support him in the June 24 primary.

"It's not clear to me what message he's selling," said Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University. "He's just not getting through."

Gansler is embracing the role of underdog. "I do know what I'm up against," Gansler said Wednesday at the Baltimore Sun Newsmakers Forum. "It's the status quo. It's the entrenched politicians versus the reform candidate from the Democratic Party."

The two-term attorney general is portraying himself as a fighter for the average citizen, a risk-taker, an outsider who can take on the establishment in Annapolis.

"My whole thing is fighting for people," Gansler told reporters Friday as he pitched a domestic-violence bill in Annapolis, one that accomplishes the same goal as another bill for which Brown lobbied that day. "I couldn't care less who gets the credit for it. I just want to make sure it gets done."

A year ago, Gansler had amassed a $3 million cash advantage and was widely considered a leading contender in the Democratic race to succeed Gov. Martin O'Malley. But with four months left until the primary election, Brown has caught up in the fundraising contest and has outmaneuvered Gansler, garnering a big lead in the polls.

Gansler must attract as many as three out of four undecided voters if he hopes to win, said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

So far, Norris said, Gansler has yet to deliver a clear theme. Norris questions whether he can. "Gansler has had two years to find one," he said.

Gansler, 51, has focused on two major issues that could seem at odds with the views of the Democratic base, blasting the state's rollout of the Affordable Care Act as a failure in leadership and promoting a cut in the corporate income tax rate as a way to attract jobs.

His chief rival, Brown, has used that as ammunition to portray Gansler as having Republican views. In a Web ad released this week, Brown juxtaposes footage of Gansler saying the state can't afford to offer pre-K classes for all children with Gansler's position that Maryland should reduce its corporate income tax rate to match Virginia's.

The ad features voters responding, including one who says Gansler "sounds like a Republican." The video, which the Brown campaign aggressively marketed through social media, received more than 10,000 hits in its first day.

"If he doesn't fix this within a month, he very much could walk himself right out this race," said veteran Democratic strategist Mike Morrill, who does not support any candidate in the race.

Morrill said the accusation that Gansler has Republican views doesn't match up with his record — being the first statewide official to openly support same-sex marriage back in 2008 and attacking companies for environmental violations or breaking consumer protection laws. "That shouldn't stick unless Doug lets it," Morrill said.

Gansler's campaign was beset last year by controversies, including remarks about Brown relying on being black to win over voters and Gansler's attendance at a teenage party after which he said it was not his responsibility to stop underage drinking.

Moreover, Gansler's message has been muddled, some analysts say. He's rolled out so many ideas that it's hard to define his candidacy simply. Mizeur can easily be identified as the most liberal, with ideas such as legalizing marijuana and using the tax revenue for universal preschool. Brown is seen by many as a continuation of the O'Malley administration.

Gansler, meanwhile, has pitched eyeglasses for children, apprenticeship programs, manufacturing proposals, a chicken-waste-to-energy program, giving tablet computers to inmates, and building a maglev train between Baltimore and Washington. While he says the state cannot afford universal pre-K for everyone, he has pitched a limited expansion of pre-K for the most disadvantaged students. He proposes cutting the corporate income tax, but also closing tax loopholes.

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