Why the Maryland Primary Is an Uphill Battle for Progressives

Liberals emboldened by Stacey Abrams’ big victory in Georgia are trying to rebuild her coalition in Maryland. But it won’t be easy.

At left: Ben Jealous. At right: Rushern Baker.
Ben Jealous and Rushern Baker. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Cheryl Diaz Meyer for the Washington Post via Getty Images and Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

When Sen. Cory Booker wanted to convey the progressive potential of Ben Jealous’ campaign for Maryland governor, he didn’t invoke Barack Obama or even Bernie Sanders.

“I think he’s going to energize this country,” Booker said at a rally for Jealous earlier this month. “He is really like a Stacey Abrams right now, which really can spark the moral imagination of this country to who we can be when we come together.”

Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia General Assembly, hasn’t even won her own gubernatorial race yet. But after finishing with more than 75 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary last month—running on a platform of mobilizing disaffected liberals, and especially voters of color—she has become the personification of progressives’ dreams for 2018. On Tuesday, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart compared Tallahassee, Florida, Mayor Andrew Gillum—who, like Jealous and Abrams, is running to become his state’s first black governor—to Abrams, saying there was “something familiar in the tone, urgency and words.”

In Georgia, Abrams ran an unapologetically left-leaning campaign that courted a new coalition of minorities and progressive whites, on the idea that Democrats can only win back the historically red state by engaging new voters. That proposition won’t be tested until November, but her overwhelming victory is already being seen as a model for other progressive Democrats in how to win a contested primary in 2018.

In Maryland—where early voting is underway and the primary is on Tuesday—Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, is trying to assemble a similar coalition, with promises of a $15 minimum wage, single-payer health care, and tuition-free college funded by ending mass incarceration.

“Our campaign has always been one of running towards the people, running towards the base of progressives, Democrats, like-minded independents, on a platform that’s about solving big problems for working people,” Jealous told Slate. “We’ve shown that we can unite the Democratic Party around a progressive platform that empowers working people moving forward together.”

But unlike Abrams’ race in Georgia, Jealous is competing for the nomination with another black candidate, Rushern Baker, the county executive of Prince George’s County and a fixture in Maryland politics. Baker has also supported some progressive policy positions—like a $15 minimum wage—and has touted his own ability to turn out black voters.

“I don’t think Jealous is the only one employing that [Stacey Abrams] strategy,” said Stella Rouse, a political science professor at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Jealous and Baker appear to be leading a field that also includes four other major candidates, all of whom are vying for the right to take on popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Heading into Tuesday’s vote, public polls show black voters appear almost evenly split between Jealous and Baker.

“How well they mobilize the black voters will make a difference in who gets this nomination and ultimately how well the candidate does in the general election against Hogan,” said Rouse.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Jealous’ campaign so closely resembles Abrams’. The two first met 25 years ago in Mississippi, at a training for student organizers rallying to save historically black colleges from being closed.

“Stacey and I both come from old Southern activist families that are deeply committed to expanding opportunity, protecting civil rights, and ending poverty,” said Jealous.

Now, they are revamping that message for 2018. Abrams has endorsed Jealous, along with many of the same national progressives who championed her campaign in Georgia, including Booker, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Kamala Harris. Jealous has also been endorsed by longtime friend Dave Chappelle and CNN commentator Van Jones, and has received funding from PowerPAC.org, a California-based social justice group that contributed to Abrams’ campaign.

A rally with Sanders last week drew hundreds of people to the Silver Springs Civic Center, with loud chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” and a warning from Sanders himself about how close the race is likely to be.

“Ben is taking on the entire establishment of the state and the likelihood is that on election night the results are going to be very close,” said Sanders. “Ben can win by a few votes, he could lose by a few votes, and we’re here tonight to do everything we can to make sure he wins.”

Sanders himself won only about 34 percent of the primary vote in Maryland in 2016, and Jealous will presumably need lots of Clinton supporters—including many of the black voters who favored her—to prevail on Tuesday. Black Americans make up about 31 percent of Maryland’s population, according to census data, one of the highest percentages outside of the South, and whether those voters turn out in November could be key to defeating Hogan.

Jealous, like Abrams before him, is running in part on the idea that he can turn out these black voters and register thousands more. He cites his tenure at the NAACP, where he claims to have helped turn out 1.2 million unlikely voters for Obama’s re-election in 2012. “They said black men were discouraged, we likely wouldn’t show up to vote,” he said at a debate earlier this month. “That year we set records for black male voter turnout.”

But plenty of Maryland Democrats are skeptical that Jealous can engage a new generation of voters, in a midterm election year when turnout is typically low. In Georgia, Abrams’ plan is something of a Hail Mary—an attempt to win back a reliably Republican state where Democrats have been shut out of statewide offices in recent decades, and where Trump won by about 5 points. Maryland, on the other hand, went overwhelmingly for Clinton in 2016, by a margin of 60 to 34.

“Georgia is a very different state than Maryland. … You have a pretty traditionalistic culture in Georgia, which makes it more of an uphill fight,” said Rouse, the University of Maryland professor. “Maryland has the more individualistic culture and has a tradition of being more progressive and Democratic for a longer period of time.”

Supporters of Baker worry that Jealous’ attempt to energize liberals with left-leaning policy positions could alienate the voters they will need to defeat Hogan, who currently has an approval rating of more than 60 percent.

Baker has taken more moderate stances on many key issues in the race. He supports making health care more affordable but stops short of endorsing Medicare for all, and he backs free community college for Marylanders but not free public colleges and universities. He portrays himself as a pragmatist, pointing to job growth and a drop in crime while he oversaw Prince George’s County.

“I can tell you what energizes especially African American and Latino voters, because we have one of the largest populations of both, and young voters. It’s about actually solving people’s problems,” said Baker in a phone interview. “I think what turns people off is that they hear promises that they know will never happen, and I think we have to be honest and straightforward with people about what we can do and what the cost of that is.”

Baker has touted his endorsements from most of Maryland’s Democratic heavyweights, including from Sen. Chris Van Hollen, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, and former Gov. Martin O’Malley. He is banking on that party establishment to help turn out support in the Washington metro area, including Prince George’s County—the largest source of Democratic votes in the state, where the black population is more than 60 percent.

“There is a kind of establishment politics in Maryland. There’s a well-organized Democratic Party that tries to find the middle of the road,” said Matt Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. “For example, Martin O’ Malley made his name not by speaking out for the underprivileged or minorities, but as a crime fighter, and that paid off for him. I don’t think it would pay off as well in a more progressive state like California.”

But Jealous’ appeal to a progressive grassroots has netted him some establishment support, too, including running mate Susie Turnbull, the former head of the Maryland Democratic Party, whom he credits for high Democratic turnout during O’Malley’s re-election in 2010, and several of the state’s most powerful labor unions, like SEIU and the Maryland State Education Association, the largest union in the state.

At Jealous’ rally with Sanders, the themes were predictably progressive—the greed of Wall Street and the pharmaceutical industry, the need for universal health care, tuition-free college, and criminal justice reform—even as Jealous sought to play down the divide within the party.

“This is not about progressives versus the establishment,” said Jealous. “This is about the people versus politicians who have become too cozy with big developers and Wall Street.”