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Analysis: Hogan Casts Long Shadow Over Desultory Democratic Contest

Last week began with a preemptive video from the Maryland Republican Party called “Uninspired” – a commentary on the Democratic candidates for governor as they were about to gather for their first televised forum Monday.


The online ad was predictably partisan and only mildly amusing. But the point was well taken: In this crowded Democratic primary, are any of the candidates inspiring the electorate? For that matter, is anyone besides the most committed Democratic activists (and Republican opposition researchers) even paying attention?


The candidates, by and large, did fine during the forum. With little to disagree about, they emphasized their experience and displayed stylistic differences.


State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., with 16 years in the legislature under his belt, was the most fluent on the issues – and the most naturally animated on the stage. Democratic voters could certainly find plenty to like from the seven principal contenders (and if you could miraculously fuse them together, you’d have one awfully impressive candidate).


But a week later, following a series of news and political developments in the state – some momentous, like another catastrophic flood in Ellicott City, others less so – and with the next televised Democratic forum set for Wednesday, the same question can be asked: Where is the excitement in the race? And why does Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), even after a season of Democratic candidates traveling the state, attacking his record, seem as strong as ever?


Hogan appeared at his gubernatorial best over the holiday weekend, touring flood-ravaged Ellicott City, offering hugs and prayers and words of encouragement, and putting the full force of state government behind clean-up and relief efforts for all the communities in central Maryland that were hit hard by the storm.


Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., with Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman, views flood damage in Ellicott City Sunday. Governor’s office Facebook photo


And if that’s not enough, now, in the homestretch of the Democratic primary, Hogan is about to unleash a substantial portion of his fat campaign war chest to air gauzy ads about his record and self-proclaimed bipartisanship, reminding voters of how he faced cancer with equanimity – at a time when the Democrats might expect to finally attract a shred of public attention. It is entirely conceivable that TV-watchers will see more of Hogan’s ads than they will see from the Democratic candidates between now and the June 26 primary.


Here we are in what’s supposed to be one of the most Democratic states in the country, in an election cycle that could be wildly favorable for Democrats. Yet the Democratic primary to take on Maryland’s Republican governor is generating little light and even less heat – even though skirmishing among the candidates began in earnest after last week’s TV forum and will only intensify in the days ahead.


Some Democrats remain convinced that Hogan absolutely can be defeated. Many others wonder if that’s possible. (Remember, there was near certitude in 2014 that Hogan couldn’t win.)


Either way, it’s hard for Democrats to explain to casual voters, even if they are Democrats, why defeating Hogan matters, when he can deliver digestible – if occasionally debatable – sound bites about taxes, school funding, the environment, and job creation.


What ails the Democrats?


On NBC’s “Meet the Press” last week, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders declared, “Establishment Democrats don’t generate excitement.” That came a few hours after The Washington Post’s wholly predictable endorsement of Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker in the Democratic gubernatorial primary (here’s another prediction: the Post will endorse Hogan in the general election).


Maryland, on the surface, remains a heavily Democratic state. Which means the party establishment is firmly in control of party affairs.


It’s probably no accident that Baker and the late Baltimore county executive Kevin B. Kamenetz topped all public polls on the primary (though they lagged behind “Undecided”). And even the outsiders in this race, to varying degrees, have establishment credentials – though Madaleno and former Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie L. Ervin, who had been Kamenetz’s running mate, are the only other candidates with experience in elective office.


Madaleno and former Obama administration official Krishanti Vignarajah have done well in straw polls across the state. But do their campaigns have the resources to get these activists to the polls, build on any momentum from the straw votes and expand their universe of supporters?


Attorney James L. Shea has the campaign cash to be on the air regularly between now and the primary, and with his running mate, Baltimore City Councilman Brandon M. Scott, seems poised to attract a portion of the Baltimore-area vote that was gravitating to Kamenetz. Tech entrepreneur Alec J. Ross is running the most unconventional campaign – but is still little known in the state.


The candidacy of former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous has won widespread labor support, and unions generally have solid turnout operations. At endorsement news conferences and other events, union members have shouted noisily and enthusiastically as they’ve stood behind the candidate. But we have yet to see a massive, electric pro-Jealous labor rally, so it’s hard to measure the true level of enthusiasm – or whether the union activists, who are conditioned to shout when necessary, are merely going through the motions.


Of course, Democratic leaders find themselves going through the motions often enough. Here’s yet another prediction: If it’s U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House minority whip who entered Congress in 1981, who is at get-out-the-vote rallies in the fall exhorting fellow Democrats in that stentorian voice of his to get to the polls, the party is in trouble.


Much of the Democratic enthusiasm around the country this year appears to be in places where Democrats have been down for a long time, and where Democratic candidates – in victory and in defeat – are exceeding expectations. These are states and districts where the Democrats need to attract new voters to flourish. And with so much Democratic anger aimed at President Trump, it’s only natural that party strategists would be focused on retaking one or both chambers of Congress.


But in Maryland, Democrats, utilizing the full powers of their majority in Annapolis, have already exceeded political expectations. With the exception of a few legislative and county seats here and there, they’ve gone about as far as they can go. And maybe that dampens some of the voters’ anger and hunger.


Sure, Maryland Democrats are appalled by Trump and want to punish him at the polls. But how do they do that in 2018? By voting out Hogan, who has worked overtime to separate himself from the president?


The Maryland Democratic Party has a program in place to identify and engage voters who have been ignored by the party in the past. Some of the Democratic candidates for governor have been conscientious about reaching out to voters in forgotten places. It is absolutely conceivable that these efforts will bear fruit in the fall.


But Hogan is part of a class of wildly popular Republican governors in blue states up for reelection this year – Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Phil Scott in Vermont are the others – whose fate, so far, has not been impacted by national political trends.


To relate it to current events: The Ellicott City disaster in 2016 was described as a “1,000-year flood” – and yet it happened again just two years later. Larry Hogan’s victory in 2014 seemed like a once-in-a-generation occurrence. And yet, come November, four short years later, history could very well repeat itself.


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Analysis: Hogan Casts Long Shadow Over Desultory Democratic Contest