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Maryland's Obamacare Stumble Fails To Sway Governor's Race

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown at a January 2014 minimum-wage rally outside the Maryland State House.
Jose Luis Magana
Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown at a January 2014 minimum-wage rally outside the Maryland State House.

Here's a measure of Maryland's Democratic tilt: Even an epic failure in launching the state's health care website isn't enough to derail the political fortunes of the official responsible for it. The Affordable Care Act is that popular.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who was assigned by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2010 to oversee the health care law's rollout in Maryland, remains the Democratic front-runner in the June 24 primary. His still-formidable standing is a testament to his political talent, but also to his chief rival's tendency for self-inflicted damage.

Doug Gansler, Maryland's attorney general, has made Brown's alleged managerial incompetence a central theme of his campaign. To further his point about Brown's managerial chops, Gansler earlier this week did something rare in American politics — he trivialized a veteran's military service.

Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler.
Cliff Owen / AP
Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler.

Brown, an Army Reserve colonel and Harvard Law grad, did a tour in Iraq in the Judge Advocate General's Corps.

"I'm running against somebody who has never managed anybody, never run anything," Gansler said at a candidate forum earlier in the week before a group of high-tech executives. "His ads are about how he's a lawyer in Iraq, and that's all fine and good, but this is a real job."

Cue the outrage from veterans.

At a candidates' forum Wednesday evening in Takoma Park, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., Gansler tried to extricate himself from the controversy. "Like everybody in this room I have the deepest respect for all of our veterans and the utmost respect for all of our veterans. ...

"My issue was leadership," Gansler continued. "To be governor, you have a chance to be a leader. And I was questioning the lieutenant governor's leadership in Annapolis because for the first seven years in Annapolis as lieutenant governor he wasn't involved in things and didn't have a role and really didn't do a lot. Then he said, 'I'm in charge of the Affordable Care Act rollout,' " which turned out to be a disaster.

When Brown took his turn on the stage at the forum, he demonstrated why smart politicians never, ever, say anything that remotely resembles criticism of an opponent's military service.

"One of the most difficult nights of my life was telling my 9-year-old daughter and my 4-year-old son that their dad would be spending a year with the Army in the desert," Brown said.

"I went because of the professionalism and courage of the men and women of the 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad, the same unit I served with 20 years earlier on active duty. I made it back home to my family and the country that we all love."

Cue the patriotic music.

For what it was worth, Brown accepted responsibility for the website failure. "Everyone involved in establishing the health benefits exchange has a responsibility and that includes me," Brown said.

Also noteworthy: Maryland is one of two states where Democrats running in primaries for governor are using the ACA to try to score political points against other Democrats. It's also occurring in neighboring Pennsylvania.

It's one thing for Republicans to campaign against Democrats using ACA as a weapon. It's an entirely different thing when Democrats do it.

Gansler's dismissive comment about Brown was clearly a major failure — but perhaps not his most important one.

He has also clearly failed, so far at least, to get Maryland Democratic voters to care much about Brown's mismanagement of the health exchange website's launch.

Like its federal counterpart, the Maryland site crashed last fall at the start of open enrollment, delaying the ability of many Marylanders to sign up. It's estimated the state will have spent at least $130 million on the flawed site and its replacement by time it's all over, according to a recent report.

Brown, who hopes to become the state's first African-American governor, has a healthy lead in the polls despite the health care exchange misfire.

A poll conducted in early April by St. Mary's College of Maryland put Brown's support at 27 percent of Democratic voters, Gansler at 11 percent and state Del. Heather Mizeur at 8 percent.

The contest clearly hasn't engaged most Maryland Democrats, however. A majority of them, 54 percent, were undecided. That's not for lack of trying on the Democratic establishment's part. Brown has been endorsed by everyone from former President Bill Clinton, who is scheduled to do a fundraiser in a few weeks for Brown, to O'Malley.

Several voters at the forum told It's All Politics thatbecause Maryland is such a strong Democratic state, the botched website isn't as damaging to Brown as it might have been elsewhere.

"Maryland did a good job of embarrassing itself but I don't hold one person responsible for that," said Judith Johnson, a retired mental health center director who attended the candidates' forum. She was one of those Brown-leaning Democrats. "I like his style, his calmness. And I like the administration we've had."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.