Two weeks prior to the June 24 primary, following an 18-month campaign throughout which he struggled to get his name and message before Maryland’s Democratic electorate, state Sen. Brian Frosh finally knew he was on a glide path to win his party’s nomination for attorney general.
While the Frosh campaign was not conducting daily tracking polls, a Washington Post opinion survey on June 11 showed Frosh trailing his chief rival, Baltimore County Del. Jon Cardin, by just six percentage points. Most importantly, it showed Frosh as more than tripling his support since a similar poll in February, when Cardin appeared to be benefitting from voter confusion between his better-known uncle: U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin.
“The Washington Post poll basically told us that we were going to make it,” Frosh, who has represented the Bethesda/Chevy Chase area in the General Assembly since 1986, recalled in an interview late Friday. “[The results] were within the margin of error, and there was still a big chunk undecided voters. The momentum was all going our way.”
He continued: “And the Post poll was taken before Gov. O’Malley endorsed me, before the Baltimore Sun endorsed me, before the Post wrote a second [endorsement] editorial, before [U.S. Reps.] Elijah Cummings and John Delaney endorsed me. With all that stuff coming after the poll, we felt like we were on target.”
The Post poll, while published on June 11, was in the field surveying voters from June 5-8. O’Malley’s endorsement actually came out on the first day of that period. But the Sun endorsement of Frosh did not appear unitl the morning of June 8, after much of the surveying had been completed. The endorsement of Delaney, a Potomac resident, followed on June 9. (Frosh, who won Montgomery County by a whopping 50 points, also had the backing of the county’s other member of Congress, Rep. Chris Van Hollen.)
The endorsement by Cummings, which followed on June 10, was particularly significant: He is one of two African-Americans in the state’s congressional delegation, and represents much of the city of Baltimore, which is nearly two-thirds black. Jon Cardin, for the past 12 years, has represented a legislative district in Baltimore County that abuts the Baltimore city line.
On Primary Day, as Frosh was defeating Cardin by a margin higher than he had anticipated –50-30 percent, with the remaining 20 percent going to Prince Georges County Del. Aisha Braveboy – Frosh’s edge in the Baltimore area approached or equaled his statewide margin. He won Baltimore city by 16 points, and took Cardin’s home county by 20. In fact, in four other counties that are considered part of the immediate Baltimore metropolitan area (Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard), Frosh won by double digit margins.
One of several possible explanations for this lies in the continuing potency of political advertising on TV, notwithstanding increasing competition from other media in the digital era.
Frosh launched a hard-hitting 30-second spot aimed at Cardin that ran frequently on Baltimore television in the closing weeks of the campaign. It underscored the current-day reality that, even as many voters may complain about the negativity of political campaigns in general, attack ads — candidates prefer to characterize them as “comparative” – continue to work.
Cardin’s best showings Tuesday came in five counties located in the southernmost part of Maryland’s Eastern Shore where market penetration by Baltimore’s TV stations is limited. In fact, three of the latter counties are not even in the Baltimore market area: They’re primarily served by television stations in the city of Salisbury. Two of the counties in the Salisbury market area, Somerset and Wicomico, gave Cardin his two biggest margins over Frosh of anywhere in the state: 35 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
Bottom line: Frosh did well where many voters saw the negative ads, and Cardin did best where many didn’t. When asked if he felt the TV spots had been a major factor in his campaign’s success, Frosh simply replied, “Yes, absolutely.”
In contrast to the Washington market, where Frosh ran upbeat TV spots focused on his endorsement by the Washington Post and his long list of legislative accomplishments, television viewers in the Baltimore market saw a Frosh ad that opened with a video of Cardin appearing shifty-eyed. It began with an announcer intoning: “Delegate Jon Cardin repeatedly failed to show up for work. Missed 75 percent of committee votes. Misused a Baltimore police boat and helicopter, then tried to duck accountability. No wonder Maryland’s newspapers, teachers, cops and gun control advocates all endorse Brian Frosh.”
Cardin attempted to counter with an ad that opened by showing small frames of the Frosh ad, while declaring, “Brian Frosh is unfairly attacking Jon Cardin’s family just to win an election.” If it was an attempt to create a voter backlash by suggesting Frosh was attacking Cardin’s popular uncle, it didn’t work.
Frosh said Jon Cardin was “very gracious” when he called Tuesday night to offer congratulations; a possible Cardin endorsement of Frosh did not come up. Ben Cardin, who campaigned on behalf of his nephew in the closing days of the campaign, also called to congratulate Frosh; again, an endorsement was not discussed.
It’s not that Frosh – whose candidacy garnered the backing of virtually the state’s entire Democratic establishment, Ben Cardin notwithstanding – is in particular need of additional endorsements. While insisting he is taking nothing for granted — he plans to be back out on the trail this week, marching in up to a half-dozen parades on July 4th – Frosh is an overwhelming favorite to win election as the state’s next attorney general in November. His Republican opponent, Baltimore County attorney Jeffrey Pritzker, filed for the job just hours before the deadline in February; Maryland last elected a Republican as attorney general in 1919.
With the 2014 contest for attorney general apparently all but over, its major story line is now also history: It was the year in which Brian Frosh, an almost professorial personality with a reputation as a low-key consensus builder in Annapolis and a long history of easily winning re-election at home, demonstrated that he knew how to play hard ball with his political future on the line.
Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College and a regular commentator on statewide politics, cited low turnout and numerous missteps by Cardin as factors in Frosh’s victory. But Eberly also noted the willingness of Frosh and his supporters to engage in some no-hold-barred tactics. “In the closing weeks, you saw the Democratic Party establishment close ranks completely around Frosh in a way that almost shocked me,” said Eberly, a self-acknowledged Frosh supporter.
In particular, Eberly pointed to a letter by 35 Frosh backers in the General Assembly – released in late May – that sharply criticized Cardin. While 15 signers were colleagues of Frosh’s from the Montgomery County delegation, another 12 were from Baltimore city, with two more representing districts in Baltimore County adjacent to Cardin’s.
“We are deeply disappointed by Jon’s cavalier attitude toward his job and the suggestion that what we do in Annapolis in our committee is not important,” declared the letter, alluding to comments by Cardin in which he sought to defend his absenteeism from committee meetings during this year’s legislative session.
Said Eberly: “As someone who intended to vote for Frosh, in some respects I almost felt that it went over the top to be taking on a member of your own party in such a way. But I think that, in the end, it obviously helped [Frosh].”
When asked Friday if he had to step outside of his comfort zone to run the TV spots criticizing Cardin on the committee absenteeism and other issues, Frosh responded, “The ads were comparative, and I think it was a fair comparison.”
After a pause, he added, “I was comfortable with them.”