Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot has established himself as the front-runner of the Democratic field for governor, although former nonprofit organization leader Wes Moore and former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez are gaining ground, according to a new poll for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.
A large segment of voters remain undecided in the 10-way Democratic primary and in the four-way Republican primary, where former state Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz leads Del. Dan Cox, the poll of likely voters found.
Roughly a third of likely Democratic voters and two-fifths of likely Republican voters had not yet made up their mind for the July 19 primary, leaving the races wide open just before the first mail-in ballots are set to go out to voters who requested them.
The winners will go head-to-head in November to replace outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan, who in 2018 became the first Republican governor to win reelection in Maryland in 64 years.
The survey of 562 likely Democratic primary voters and 428 likely Republican primary voters was conducted by telephone and online May 27 through June 2. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points for Democrats and plus or minus 4.7 percentage points for Republicans.
Franchot, with 15 years of statewide elected office under his belt, heads the crowded Democratic field with 20% of the vote among likely voters.
Moore, a political newcomer, and Perez, a longtime public official and Democratic Party leader, have 15% and 12%, respectively. Both candidates are successful fundraisers and have racked up lengthy lists of endorsements. Many of the major labor groups have fallen behind Perez, and Moore has secured support from top Maryland Democrats such as U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and state House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones.
“The two candidates to watch right now are definitely Perez and Moore,” said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll.
Former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker was the only other candidate close to cracking double digits, at 7%.
Those lagging are former state Attorney General Doug Gansler and former U.S. Education Secretary John King, at 4% each; former Obama White House official Ashwani Jain, at 2%; and, at 1% each, former nonprofit organization leader Jon Baron, academic and Bread and Roses Party founder Jerome Segal (now running as a Democrat), and teacher Ralph Jaffe.
On the Republican side, Hogan has endorsed Schulz, a former state lawmaker from Frederick County who he elevated to two cabinet positions during his first seven years in office. Cox, a first-term delegate also from Frederick County, is endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
Despite a fundraising advantage and support from the popular incumbent, Schulz maintains a narrow lead of 6 percentage points, 27% to 21%, and her supporters are slightly less “firm” in their decision than Cox’s voters, according to the poll. About 38% of Cox’s voters say they are firmly behind him, while 33% say the same for Schulz.
The other GOP candidates on the ballot, former defense attorney and lower-tax advocate Robin Ficker and lawyer Joe Werner, came in at 5% and 4%, respectively.
“Schulz can’t afford to coast at all,” said Roger Hartley, dean of University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs.
“There’s still an opportunity for this race to tighten up and be a really strong one,” he said.
In 2018, Hogan entered the election year with substantial support even among Democrats, who hold a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage in the state. A poll from The Sun and the University of Baltimore in early June of that year found nearly a quarter of Democratic voters intended to support Hogan that November.
His hand-picked successor might not be able to mine that same vein.
“[Hogan] plays this role of being a socially open-minded but fiscally conservative Republican, kind of in the old mold. And Democratic voters, many of them in Maryland, really appreciate that role that he plays,” Raabe said. “Many Republican primary voters are really frustrated by that. Therefore, he hasn’t really demonstrated coattails in the Republican primary.”
Four years after former NAACP chief Ben Jealous’ double-digit loss to Hogan, the Democratic field is dominated by several well-funded candidates who boast substantial political resumes. The top-tier candidates have all made significant television ad buys and constantly traveled the state, but there have been no signs that anyone has broken from the pack.
Franchot was the first to get in the race, way back in January 2020, and has campaigned on his decades of experience and what he’s described as a positive working relationship with the Republican governor. The Sun/UB poll showed a plurality of his support was from white voters over the age of 65, like himself, according to those who responded to demographic questions.
The support for both Moore, who lives in Baltimore, and Perez, of Montgomery County, is spread out more evenly across age ranges and races, though Perez’s voters also skew slightly older, the poll found. If elected, Moore would be the state’s first Black governor, while Perez would be Maryland’s first Hispanic governor.
Hartley said it’s “really significant” that Franchot is also the second choice for a plurality of voters — with 17% saying they’d pick him after their first choice. That’s also where Perez shows signs of strength over Moore, as 14% say Perez is their second choice compared with 8% for Moore.
Perez’s voters are also slightly more “firm” in their support, at 32%, versus 26% for Moore and 25% for Franchot.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s an indicator that he’s hitting a ceiling right now,” Hartley said of Moore, emphasizing that the poll is “a snapshot in time with 30-some percent undecided.”
Megan Barnes, 40, a stay-at-home mom from Columbia, said she’s leaning toward Moore because she read his books and likes both his personal story and his ideas. But she says she also wants to learn more about the other candidates.
Latrese Brown, another voter leaning toward Moore, said she’s looking for what the candidates have to say about addressing poverty, crime, and health care for the elderly and veterans. She said Moore could bring a different outlook.
“As an African American, sometimes it is helpful to have African Americans who understand certain struggles and see things in a different way,” said Brown, 42, who works in health care.
Perez also has a valuable background in public service under then-President Barack Obama and, as a former U.S. and state labor secretary, has a “working man’s viewpoint,” said supporter Paula Kramer, a 69-year-old retiree from Olney who’s concerned about gun control and women’s rights.
Franchot, meanwhile, has benefited from decades of name recognition as comptroller and as a legislator.
“Many years ago, when he was a state representative, he went door to door in our old neighborhood and talked to us, and I found him to be very personable and engaging and knowledgeable,” said Roberta Pearlstein, 74, of North Potomac.
Thomas McKenna, 49, of Columbia, said doesn’t typically pay attention to everything the comptroller does, but he’s liked what Franchot has done with getting people tax refunds. The comptroller’s duties include collecting state taxes and issuing refunds, and his signature is on the state’s checks.
Others aren’t making their pick just yet.
“There’s a lot of choices right now and I’m waiting to see … because the field is very crowded,” said Nechama Cox, 50, of Baltimore.
The Republican primary has in many ways pitted Hogan’s brand of moderate conservatism against the Trump populism that’s dominated the party nationwide since 2015.
Schulz’s messaging in television ads and speeches has focused heavily on fighting rising crime, reducing taxes like the state gas tax, and giving parents more control over school choice and curriculum. Cox, who tried to impeach Hogan over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has focused primarily on what he’s described as government overreach with mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Raabe said the poll shows it’s too early to tell which version Maryland Republican voters will go to represent them in the general election.
A larger portion of both Schulz’s and Cox’s support came from voters who decided within the last month, indicating the candidates have been active in introducing themselves to voters, the poll found. And where that support came from was largely similar in terms of age and race, although a far higher percentage of Cox’s supporters — 35% — are under age 35, compared with 13% of Schulz’s supporters.
“It’s going to be all about direct contact, personal contact” with voters over the remaining weeks, Raabe said.
Hartley said Schulz’s endorsement from Hogan is considered “very important and powerful,” but she might not be drawing the same kind of enthusiasm that Cox does from conservative activists. In other races and states, that factor has led to some Republican surprises in recent years.
And with 68% of Republicans saying they will vote on primary day instead of using early or mail-in voting (compared with 39% in the Democratic primary), the GOP race to the finish could be determined by which candidate has the resources and enthusiasm to last through July 19.
“There’s no doubt that would help if she’s outraised him and has that strong Republican establishment base behind her,” Hartley said. “But is she going to be able to show her conservative bona fides in this election cycle alongside someone like Cox, who trumpets those bona fides?”
Middle River resident Thomas Beegan, 64, said the Trump endorsement committed him to Cox. Beegan said he was in favor of “practically all” of Trump’s policies, including U.S. energy independence and border control.
“And if Donald Trump supports Dan Cox, then I’m reasonably sure that Dan Cox supports these agendas, as well,” he said.
Schulz supporter Virginia Sanders, meanwhile, said she’s supporting her because of Hogan.
“She follows many of his ideas and principles and the other three are completely unacceptable,” said Sanders, 77, of Rising Sun, referring to Cox, Ficker and Werner.
White Marsh resident Edward Brown, 64, said he’s voting for Schulz because he believes she has the better chance of being elected governor.
“I don’t think she has a very good chance of winning, but at least I’ll vote for her,” said Brown. “Anything she stands for is definitely better than the blue side.”
Others are just glad Hogan will be out of office and are less sure who they’ll pick to replace him.
“I don’t think he’s doing it for Maryland anymore,” said 39-year-old Conowingo resident Jenn Norman, an undecided Republican voter.
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The poll was finished about a week before the first mail-in ballots go out to voters who requested them, and five weeks before early voting begins July 7. Voters must be registered Democrat or Republican to vote in their party’s primary; the deadline to register is June 28.
Political observers say a major question for the primary will be turnout. About 42% of registered voters turned out to vote in 2020, but that had a presidential race headlining the ballot.
Only about 29% of registered Democrats voted in the party’s contested 2018 gubernatorial primary, when 22% of Republicans showed up to nominate Hogan for a second, four-year term. Some are expecting turnout to dip even further this year, given that the primary was delayed because of legal battles over congressional and legislative redistricting, ultimately landing in the prime vacation time of midsummer.
Baltimore Sun reporter Hannah Gaskill contributed to this article.