Ben Jealous compared his decisive Maryland Democratic primary victory in June to climbing the world's second-highest mountain — a prelude, he hopes, to ascending the state's political Mount Everest to knock off popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Instead, Jealous has had to reverse course in recent weeks after some highly publicized missteps.
Badly outmatched in fundraising in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, Jealous is struggling so far to become Maryland's first black governor and prevent the first re-election of a Republican governor in the heavily blue state since 1954.
Voters have elected just two black governors in U.S. history — in 2006 in Massachusetts and 1989 in Virginia. Jealous is one of three black candidates running for governor this year, along with Democrats Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida. Jealous is facing the steepest challenge of the three, running against an incumbent while Abrams and Gillum are running for open seats.
A Goucher College poll released Wednesday indicated a staggering gap between Hogan and Jealous, with Hogan leading by 22 percentage points, 54 percent to 32 percent. The poll by the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center was conducted Tuesday to Sunday. It found Hogan had the support of 38 percent of Democrats. The poll of 831 Maryland adults had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
The Jealous campaign says the poll is underestimating the number of voters they believe will turn out in November in a heavily Democratic state.
"It shows that public pollsters, just as they did in 2014 when they had Larry Hogan down by 17 points in October, continue to underestimate voter turnout dynamics,'' said Kevin Harris, a senior adviser to Jealous' campaign.
But the Jealous campaign has been struggling in recent weeks as the campaign heads into the homestretch.
The latest reversal came late Tuesday, after his campaign announced it was lifting a veto against a veteran statehouse reporter's participation in the only debate between the two candidates next week. After a day of widespread criticism over blocking Tamela Baker of the Hagerstown Herald-Mail from participating, Harris blamed the Hogan campaign for failing to agree to more debates in announcing the dropping of the veto.
"More debates would've allowed greater opportunities to ensure a full and diverse collection of media being able to participate," Harris said in a statement. "It is clear that reaching a good faith agreement with our opponents is impossible, as they'd rather play politics than have an open process."
The announcement brought swift ridicule from the Hogan campaign, which contends it was the Jealous campaign that turned down more debates.
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"Whatever little credibility Ben Jealous still had, it quickly evaporated with this latest ridiculous statement trying to dodge accountability for first turning down multiple debate opportunities, then trying to maneuver around media outlets he didn't want involved, and then vetoing reporters he doesn't like," said deputy campaign manager Doug Mayer.
It's not the first Jealous reversal involving a reporter. Last month, Jealous apologized for using an expletive when responding to a question from a reporter from The Washington Post about whether he identified with the word "socialist," a word Hogan has used to describe him.
"Are you (expletive) kidding me?" Jealous responded, only to later apologize "for my inappropriate language."
About two weeks later, the Jealous campaign was explaining why it removed a like from a six-month-old tweet on his Twitter account that described corrupt police and the #BlueLivesMatter movement in vulgar language. Harris said the tweet was unliked when it was brought to the campaign's attention.
"We know that Ben personally didn't like it and that it doesn't reflect his views," Harris wrote in an email at the time.
Underscoring Jealous' problems, he is far behind Hogan in fundraising. For the latest fundraising reporting period from June 11 to Aug. 21, Jealous reported having only $386,000 cash on hand, a surprisingly low amount for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Maryland, compared to $9.4 million for Hogan. Hogan has been using the fundraising edge to his advantage in television advertising, while Jealous only just put up his first TV ad since the primary on Sunday.