And the winner is…. Doug Gansler.
Doug Gansler was the clear winner in the first televised Democratic gubernatorial debate - though that was not so evident during the opening minutes. Gansler’s opening statement seemed to be little more that boilerplate sloganeering and then he got off to a slow start on the first question concerning MD’s failed health exchange. Gansler needs to walk a fine line on the exchange - he can’t be seen as criticizing the Affordable Care Act, but he needs to criticize its failed implementation in MD. He found that fine line tonight. The 2014 midterms are shaping up to be bad news for Democrats nationally owing to ongoing unpopularity of health reform, Gansler essentially accused Brown of handing the GOP a path to victory by botching the implementation. On the second question, concerning marijuana legalization, Mizeur offered the best direct response, but it was Brown’s misstep that stood out. Brown’s pivot away from marijuana decriminalization and attempt to paint Gansler as hostile to the rights of racial minorities owing to his support of the death penalty came across as simultaneously low and an overreach. On the question of taxes, Brown promised a Blue Ribbon Panel and attacked Gansler’s support of a corporate tax rate cut. Gansler swung right back, reminding voters that the O’Malley/Brown team have presided over numerous tax increases and that leading Democrats in the state - including Steny Hoyer - support lowering the corporate tax rate.
Heather Mizeur started out strong, but them seemed to fade into the background - almost entirely because the moderator, David Gregory, did such a bad job moderating. Gregory turned the debate into the Gansler/Brown point/counterpoint show. I think being constantly excluded from exchanges threw Mizeur off of her game. Her strongest moment was the discussion of qualifications and her work to pass bipartisan family planning legislation. She helped her campaign, but the impact of the debate will be muted because of Gregory’s failure as a moderator. Mizeur very effectively reminded voters of the gender wage gap in America. Gregory seemed to think that since women earn on average 15% less than men that Mizeur should receive 15% less debate time than either Gansler or Brown. Let's close that gap next time.
Brown stumbled right out of the gate. He started with a very strong bit about his family biography that never really led into a policy discussion or governing philosophy. Most of the evening he seemed more interested in getting in clearly rehearsed attacks on Gansler (the death penalty, the beach party, the reprimand) than in discussing his plans for the state. In his closing statement he promised, “I have a plan,” and all I could think was, then why didn’t you discuss it? I think the worst moment of the debate was Brown's very clumsy pivot to the death penalty and racial bias in response to the marijuana legalization question. Was he really trying to insinuate that Gansler was hostile to issues of racial bias in the justice system? It was a bad moment in a bad night for Brown. But there were no lethal blows either received or self-inflicted.
In all, I see no game changing moment, though Gansler certainly helped his cause Brown's weak performance wasn't deadly and Mizeur was denied the breakout moment that she needs. Brown needs to do much better at the second debate. Mizeur needs to make sure no other moderator shuts her out the way Gregory did. Gansler needs to be ready for a much better prepared Brown.