Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, considered one of the leading prospective Democratic candidates for governor in 2014, said Tuesday that he will instead seek a third term in his current post.
In an interview, Franchot, 65, said he made his decision after considering internal polls that showed him a much stronger candidate for re-election than for governor. He said he's happy with what he's doing now — running Maryland's tax system and serving as the state's fiscal watchdog.
"At the end of the day, I enjoy being comptroller," Franchot said. "It's a dream job."
He acknowledged in a letter to supporters that he had been giving serious thought to running for governor. He said his polling showed him with "competitive" numbers in that race — second only to Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown — but with "incredible" strength in a campaign for comptroller.
"The public seems to like my independent brand," Franchot said.
Franchot's decision leaves the Democratic Party with at least four prospective candidates to succeed Gov. Martin O'Malley, who cannot seek a third term. They are Brown, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and Montgomery County Del. Heather R. Mizeur. Harford County Executive David R. Craig and Blaine R. Young, chairman of the Frederick County Commissioners, are seen as potential Republican candidates.
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College, said Franchot's decision came after his team carefully examined poll numbers and voter statistics.
"They had always known there was a path for him, but it was a very narrow path. Everything had to break in his direction," said Eberly, who said he discussed the decision with Franchot aides. "I don't think they saw a way he could come out on top."
In the end, Eberly said, the Franchot camp decided the demographics benefit Brown, who, if elected, would become the first black governor of Maryland. Eberly said the Democratic primary electorate is about 38 percent African-American, giving Brown an advantage in a crowded field. If the field were to narrow to two candidates, Eberly said, the advantage could shift to Gansler.
Franchot's announcement comes after an election campaign in which he bucked O'Malley and Democratic legislative leaders by appearing in ads opposing the November ballot issue to expand casino gambling in the state. Franchot's side lost, but the spots substantially raised his statewide profile.
Franchot said he was "unrepentant" about his stance. "No apologies, no regrets," he said.
After a 20-year-career representing the left-wing bastion of Takoma Park in the House of Delegates, Franchot emerged on the statewide scene in 2006 with an audacious decision to challenge William Donald Schaefer, a former governor and Baltimore mayor, in the Democratic primary for comptroller. It was widely viewed as a quixotic effort, but Franchot saw that Maryland Democrats were getting tired of the octogenarian Schaefer's erratic behavior and frequent support for Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Franchot ran a brilliant outsider campaign, carefully lining up Democratic activists — including unions, immigrants' rights groups and environmentalists — who Schaefer had offended. From a blip in the polls when he announced, Franchot steadily built his support against an incumbent who didn't see him as a threat. A third Democrat, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, also entered the race, but Franchot won the primary and coasted in the general election.
Since then, Franchot has tacked to the right flank of the Democratic Party on fiscal issues and emerged as a leading critic of O'Malley's budget policies. Had he decided to run for governor, Franchot likely would have been the most conservative Democratic candidate in the 2014 primary. He has strained relations with some members of the party's liberal base who supported him in 2006, and his opposition to the casino expansion measure angered some segments of organized labor.
Franchot's decision to run for re-election could thwart the ambitions of several Democrats who had been looking at a possible bid to succeed him. It is unclear whether anyone will challenge Franchot in the primary. Any challenger would face an incumbent with an advantage in name recognition and campaign funds.
As of his last campaign finance report, filed last January, Franchot had just over $1 million in the bank. He has continued fundraising through the year, and his report next month is likely to show a larger sum.
"I have a larger campaign war chest than I've ever had in my political career," Franchot said.
Among those who had expressed an interest in the race were state Sen. James C. Rosapepe of Prince George's County, House Minority Leader Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County and Del. Galen R. Clagett of Frederick County.
Hours after Franchot's announcement, Rosapepe issued a statement saying that he would seek re-election to the state Senate. Barve said he was disappointed that there will not be a vacancy in the comptroller's office and that he, too, will likely seek re-election to the legislature.
If no strong Democratic candidate emerges to challenge Franchot, it is unlikely that he will have much to fear from a GOP rival. The last Republican to be elected comptroller in heavily Democratic Maryland was Phillips Lee Goldsborough in 1898.