How a Republican could win governor's race

In Democratic-dominated Maryland, a rare window of opportunity

With one debate down and six weeks to go until Maryland's primary election, the political narrative in the governor's race sounds something like this: Neither Attorney General Doug Gansler nor Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is dazzling Democratic voters; Heather Mizeur, the party's other candidate, seems to have real grass-roots support, but still must convince moderates she can win a statewide election against a Republican.

Of course, conventional wisdom says the Democratic governor's race is Brown's to lose. He's the establishment's candidate, and he has oodles of money to spend on television advertising. He got through the first debate without a cringe-inducing gaffe.

Remarkably, so did the loose-lipped Gansler. I also give him points for resisting the temptation to take a selfie during the broadcast. He wisely avoided repeating dismissive comments about Brown, too. In other words, Gansler might have impressed some undecided voters by coming across as a serious man with a plan instead of a middle-aged frat-boy with a sense of entitlement.

As for Brown, you can argue that he was the winner by not messing up, which is what — yawn — front-runners are supposed to do.

And not messing up is particularly important for Brown because any little faux pas will remind voters of his big one — the state's Obamacare website that crashed on takeoff and landed on the list of Great Maryland Debacles, along with the Interstate 70 Highway To Nowhere, Baltimore's 1976 Bicentennial Birthday Cake (it weighed 35 tons, melted in the rain and had to be thrown away after the wharf rats got to it), and the 1985 Savings and Loan Crisis.

Mizeur? She played the part of positive, upbeat adult — Mizeur In The Middle — but did that strategy move the needle? I'm thinking maybe a little.

Look, I'm sure Wednesday night's debate helped some voters move off the fence and choose a candidate. But if you were to take a poll of likely primary voters this week, Undecided would still be the leading Democratic contender. I just don't hear the rumble of feet running to Brown or to Gansler, and I only hear a pitter-patter for Mizeur.

Meanwhile, there's this other sound. It's the sound of the narrative that has been forged by Republicans, and it goes something like this: Maryland is not as great as we think it is, certainly not as great as the establishment Democrats would have us believe. Taxes are too damn high, businesses are moving to Virginia and North Carolina; millionaires and retirees are fleeing the state, too. So it's time for an all-business Republican with really boring, but fiscally sound, policies to take over.

Like it or not, accurate or not, this narrative has been developing throughout Gov. Martin O'Malley's term in Annapolis.

There are four Republican candidates for governor — Larry Hogan, David Craig, Ron George and Charles Lollar — and they read from the same script: Taxes are high, the business climate is bad, we are not creating enough jobs.

From the "war on rural Maryland" to the Western Maryland secession effort, right-wing, anti-government rhetoric might sound extreme and goofy, but it's consistent with the overall theme that Democratic dominance has made the state less attractive for businesses and the middle class.

Republicans — and a fair number of Democrats — resented the way the Democratic leadership in Annapolis gerrymandered congressional districts after the 2010 Census.

Also, Republicans have been chewing on the stormwater fee mandated for Baltimore and nine counties by the Democratic-dominated legislature in 2012. One of their clever rhetoricians came up with the phrase "rain tax" to ridicule it, and it stuck. Even Republicans in counties that don't have the fee complain about it.

Just this week, the Gallup organization handed Republicans a gift: a poll showing that 47 percent of Marylanders would live somewhere else if they could, and that was the third-highest percentage of those wishing to take leave among all states. (Only Connecticut and Illinois had higher percentages.)

While taxation was nowhere near top of reasons cited for the desire to vamoose — most people said they'd move for work, or to be closer to family and friends — the Republicans are bound to use the Gallup results to bolster their point about Democratic policies.

Of course, the central part of the state and the Capital Beltway suburbs have been full of transients for about a century. Many Marylanders are from someplace else, so the Gallup findings should be no surprise. But this survey fits with the Republicans' narrative that Maryland is falling behind, Maryland is too liberal and a grown-up is needed in Annapolis.

Whether you agree with that narrative or not, it's there, and it has gained some traction. Even Gansler sounds at times like he's reading from this script — Maryland is not that great, and the establishment in Annapolis is to blame.

If Democrats do not emerge with a candidate who dazzles, and if that GOP narrative sticks, a Republican could slip through a window rarely opened.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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