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Ulman and Brown: the power of two

Tom Schaller says it's shrewd of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown to name Ken Ulman his running mate early in the game

Thomas F. Schaller

12:37 PM EDT, June 11, 2013

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Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman shook up Maryland's 2014 gubernatorial race by announcing they will run as a ticket for the Democratic nomination in 2014. Politically and electorally, it's a shrewd and gutsy move.

Picking running mates before the primary remains unconventional. In December 2005, then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley surprised almost everyone by selecting Mr. Brown, then a state delegate, to join his gubernatorial ticket almost a year before the general election. The move worked perfectly: Mr. O'Malley's chief rival, then-Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, was so caught off guard that Mr. Duncan blurted out that he was interviewing potential running mates, and foolishly offered specific names. When state reporters queried these supposed candidates, each denied having been contacted by Mr. Duncan. Oops.

The conventional wisdom is that gubernatorial and presidential candidates should make solo nomination bids and then, if they win, pick their running mates, because to do so earlier is either presumptuous or, worse, risks turning away potential supporters whose preferred choice was passed over.

This reasoning never made sense to me. At the time of Mr. O'Malley's choice of Mr. Brown (and before I became a regular Sun columnist), I co-wrote an op-ed for this paper with Chuck Todd, now of MSNBC and also an advocate for candidates tapping their lieutenant governor or vice presidential running mates before, not after, the primary election. We argued that tandem primary tickets confer two potential advantages.

First, they double the number of candidates (and spouses) for event appearances and fundraisers; plus, the second candidate can expand and balance the ticket to include new demographic or geographic elements within the party's primary base. Second, if done correctly, it puts pressure on other candidates to respond in kind — as Mr. O'Malley clearly did to Mr. Duncan eight years ago and Mr. Brown has done to fellow Democrat and 2014 gubernatorial aspirant Doug Gansler, the state attorney general. (More on Mr. Gansler in a moment.)

To be sure, the pre-primary running mate option is more advantageous for some candidates than others — and for some potential running mates than others. For the Brown-Ulman pairing, like the O'Malley-Brown pairing, the advantages are obvious for both Democrats.

For Mr. Brown, he is trying do something that hasn't been done but is long overdue in a state with one of the largest and most affluent African-American populations in the country: become the first black Democratic nominee for governor. Maryland Republicans haven't nominated a black candidate for governor either, but given African-Americans' partisan voting patterns, this is less of an oversight; besides, with Michael Steele the GOP beat the Democrats to the lieutenant governorship.

For Mr. Ulman, a veteran pol at the ripe old age of 39, should the Brown-Ulman ticket succeed — and maybe even if it doesn't — he is now positioned to be next in line for the State House.

Mr. Ulman is certainly not speculating on 2022, or even the General Election of 2014. For now, he tells me, he likes the complementarity of the ticket, noting that Mr. Brown has served in the state legislature and executive levels, while he has served as county legislator and top county official. "It's really complementary," he told me by phone. (Or maybe he meant "complimentary," given how highly the two Democrats speak of each other.)

So, the big question: Can Brown-Ulman defeat Mr. Gansler (and other potential candidates Del. Heather Mizeur and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger) to win the Democratic nomination?

Mr. Ulman says the downstate strength of Mr. Brown in his native Prince George's County, neighboring Montgomery, and Baltimore City — the state's traditional "Big 3" Democratic jurisdictions — pairs nicely with Mr. Ulman's strength in his home county and neighboring Baltimore County. If Brown-Ulman performs wells along the I-95 corridor counties, Mr. Gansler will need to pull a Democratic inside straight by wringing as many votes as possible out of Montgomery County, keeping Mr. Brown's support among African-Americans to a minimum, and finding residual votes in the Baltimore suburbs, the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland.

That's a long checklist. A shorter one for Mr. Gansler would be to convince rising star and openly gay Ms. Mizeur to join his ticket, setting up an epic clash for power within the post-O'Malley Democratic Party.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.