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C. Fraser Smith: How Brown could lose

Imagine it’s Nov. 5. You just woke up to Maryland’s version of the Eric Cantor story. Republican Larry Hogan is governor-elect of Maryland.

You remember Mr. Cantor. He’s the Virginia congressman, a leading candidate for House Speaker, who lost to a no-name university professor.

How in the world did that happen? Might we be asking the same question in Maryland’s race for governor this year? That result would be even more shocking than Cantor’s defeat.

But it’s not beyond imagining. The outlines of the Maryland story were inadvertently drawn this week by a group of political savants at a local coffee shop. These were political players who have written about politics in Maryland for many years, done their share of door-knocking on behalf of candidates or planned campaigns. So their tea leaf reading had some credibility.

And this was before news of Maryland’s $405 billion budget deficit. That information played right into Hogan’s argument: Maryland has over-taxed and generally mismanaged.

No one was predicting that Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown would lose. But at the end of the morning, some of the pieces of that unlikely outcome were in the air if not falling into place.

Their conversation reminded me of the post-election brainstorming that comes after a win or a defeat: In both cases, the idea is to form a credible explanation for the outcome: How did the candidate win or lose?

Herewith some thoughts drawn from the campaign thus far:

Brown recently took a pass on a press event in which other leaders were welcoming an effort to reclaim Sparrows Point, the one-time giant steel plant. He could have been the focus of an effort to address one of the campaign’s central issues: jobs.

That misstep seems compounded by the fact Sparrows Point is in the middle of an east Baltimore district where he needs to do well – and where, at the moment, he is decidedly not doing well. One poll shows many voters there think Maryland is not on the right track – by 70-30 margin.

Baltimore County as a whole, important in any statewide race, may be out of reach for him. Why? Taxes, rightly or wrongly.

The idea that Brown is Gov. Martin O’Malley 2.0. Enough said for some.

His campaign’s focus on pre-kindergarten for all young Marylanders is a worthy goal. But other issues probably claim more of the voters’ attention. Pre-K sounds like more big government, more spending – more taxation.

Some in the group questioned whether Brown and his team are listening to advice of old Maryland hands. Said one of these advisers: “I fire the candidates that are uncoachable.”

Much of Brown’s campaign seems overly scripted. The result: He isn’t connecting with voters in a way that makes them passionate Brown supporters. A bad sign with low turnout in the forecast.

Brown is the lieutenant governor. But he’s brand new to statewide campaigns in which he is the star, the captain, the leader. As something of a newcomer, he must accept a lot of advice from others. He may not have the experience-based judgment to know what advice is good.

All of which makes the coming debates more important than ever.

One of the coffee klatch participants said there is no detectable sign of what he called an anti-Brown wave rolling through the electorate.

Wave or not, something must be showing up in the polling. How else to explain the Democratic Governors’ Association decision to put almost a million dollars in this race for Brown. Democratic candidates in Maryland have seldom needed that sort of outside help. The association has spent its money in races that were not, as Maryland usually is, a lock for their party.

The Monday morning analysts were left to contemplate what a surprise-GOP showing in Maryland might do to the traditional Democratic control of Maryland. Candidates for County executive in Howard and Anne Arundel Counties have a chance to win.

If they do and Hogan does, the GOP would have as many as eight years in the governor’s mansion – and the long-sought-after bench of viable statewide candidates.

Maryland wouldn’t look nearly so blue.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email is fsmith@wypr.org.