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Government & Politics

Is Maryland Becoming a Purple State?

It’s looking like a good year for Democrats nationally. Independent political handicappers believe the Democrats have a better than even chance of seizing control of the House of Representatives – and could win big.

The Democrats have strong candidates for governor in several key states now held by Republicans, especially in the industrial Midwest, and in this current political environment, several of their most vulnerable U.S. senators are expected to hang on.

The scandals swirling around President Trump do Republicans no good.

Yet in Maryland – a traditionally blue state that gave Hillary Clinton her fourth biggest victory margin in the 2016 White House election – it’s a very different story.

Those same handicappers say it’s likely that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) will win a second term in November. And bullish Maryland Republicans are hoping that Hogan’s popularity lifts GOP candidates up and down the ballot.

What, exactly, is happening here?

Why isn’t Maryland moving in tandem with the national mood?

And is it time to start thinking of Maryland as a purple state, or one that is on the cusp of becoming purple?

On the last question, opinions differ.

If you take the long view, the answer is emphatically no.

“One election’s not a trend, two elections are not a trend – you’ve got to have at least 20 years to detect a trend,” said former Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, co-author of the book “Maryland Politics and Government: Democratic Dominance,” published in 2012.

“We haven’t elected a Republican U.S. senator since 1980,” Willis noted. “We haven’t elected a Republican comptroller since the 1890’s. The last Republican attorney general was elected in 1919.”

Former Secretary of State John T. Willis: ‘One election’s not a trend, two elections are not a trend.’ Courtesy photo.

But in the age of social media, 24-hour cable news and the volatile and highly divided political discourse that has gripped the nation in recent years, trendlines may not be as long-lasting or determinative as they once were – even in Maryland.

Still, both major-party candidates for governor – Hogan and former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous (D) – asserted in interviews last week that Maryland remains a solidly blue state. Both have their reasons for saying so.

“Maryland will stay blue as long as we [Democrats] vote,” Jealous said. “The most important fact about Maryland politics is there is a cap on who will vote for Republicans. It may be trite, but at the end of the day, you organize, you vote, you win.”

Hogan went so far as to say that Maryland is “probably one of the least likely states in America to become purple.”

“Just because you have one governor who Democrats happen to like doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a purple state,” he said. “I think it’s too early to make that kind of assessment. I think there are people that, for the first time, are lifelong Democrats who are willing to vote for someone of the other party. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to switch or vote for other Republicans unless you find some people that they happen to agree with.”

Jealous needs a big turnout of highly-motivated Democrats to win – and it is likely that Trump and the GOP Congress, rather than Hogan, would provide the motivation.

Benjamin T. Jealous: ‘You organize, you vote, you win.’ Courtesy photo.

If Hogan wins a second term – in a blue state, in a rotten year for Republicans – he’ll be portrayed in the media as a superman. A big victory inserts Hogan, who has worked assiduously to separate himself from Trump, into the national conversation about the future of the GOP – if there are is anyone left in the party willing to consider his brand of Republican politics and policymaking.

Opposing trendlines

When he was elected governor in 1986, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer (D) carried all 24 of the state’s jurisdictions en route to winning 82 percent of the vote. But two years later, in the 1988 White House election, Vice President George H.W. Bush carried Maryland by 3 points.

Since then, the trendlines have reversed. Democratic nominees have carried Maryland in every presidential election, by anywhere from 13 to 26 points. But since 1990, every gubernatorial election in Maryland has been competitive.

The 1994 race, in fact, was essentially a tie: In a national wave year for the GOP, Democrat Parris N. Glendening, running on a campaign blueprint designed by John Willis, beat Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey by just 5,993 votes, carrying only three jurisdictions in the process – Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Since then, three of the last five gubernatorial elections have been decided by single digits, and in all of those contests Democrats have struggled to carry much more than the “Big Three” Glendening won.

This year, if Jealous is to have a prayer of winning, he needs to ring up big vote totals in the Big Three. He is likely to carry Charles County, and Howard County looks like a jump ball. Hogan is expected to win every place else, and Jealous will need to minimize Hogan’s victory margins in these jurisdictions.

Why have gubernatorial elections in Maryland become such a slog for Democrats, even when they’re guaranteed to win presidential elections here, when they enjoy super-majorities in the General Assembly and in the congressional delegation, and when Republicans haven’t seriously competed in other statewide elections for decades?

In almost every state, the electorate in midterm elections is older, whiter and more conservative than it is in presidential years, and Maryland is no different. But is something else at work here?

Campaigns still matter. Candidates still matter. And in gubernatorial elections, the candidates are a little closer to the voters than candidates for federal offices and push separate agendas, meaning they can distance themselves from national political food fights.

At least twice during this recent period, Democrats nominated candidates for governor who party leaders and activists, at least in hindsight, considered deeply flawed: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002 and Anthony G. Brown in 2014. Both coincidentally or not, were lieutenant governors trying to move up the political ladder.

“In its gubernatorial voting habits, it’s very clear that Maryland voters are giving themselves permission to consider quality Republican candidates and bypass Democratic candidates they find flawed or wanting,” said Len N. Foxwell, chief of staff to Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, who is Hogan’s closest Democratic ally.

Foxwell compared Maryland to Massachusetts, a deep-blue state – the only state to vote for Democrat George McGovern in President Nixon’s 1972 landslide – that has been regularly electing Republican governors since 1990.

“There’s something unique about gubernatorial races,” Foxwell observed. “I think people tend to develop a closer, more personal relationship with their governors than they do with their U.S. senators. These are people who are appearing on the 6 o’clock news, dealing with hurricanes or honoring fallen police officers.”

Not that recent Maryland gubernatorial elections haven’t been impacted – and possibly even swayed – by national political trends.

In 2002, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. became the first Republican to be elected in 36 years – and that was a strong year for the GOP nationally. Four years later, it was a wave year for Democrats, and Martin J. O’Malley (D) ousted Ehrlich, even though Ehrlich was personally popular with voters. Hogan was elected four years ago in a big year for Republicans.

If Hogan is reelected this year, he will likely be defying national trends. But it won’t be the first time in recent Maryland history that has happened. O’Malley beat Ehrlich by 14 points in their 2010 rematch, despite a nationwide Republican wave. As Hogan is this year, O’Malley used the powers of incumbency to great effect, and had a significant fundraising advantage over his challenger.

But four years later, Hogan campaigned as the anti-O’Malley, and it became clear that many voters were looking for something different. Foxwell suggested that some of the more progressive aspects of O’Malley’s legacy – from marriage equality to the DREAM Act, from gun control to abolishing capital punishment to raising the gasoline tax to pay for improved transportation and infrastructure – may be limiting Maryland Democrats’ appeal to moderate voters today and giving Republicans an opening.

“The O’Malley years took us into something that may have been too far, too fast for many voters,” he said.

GOP gains hidden in plain sight

While O’Malley was racking up a big win in 2010, something else significant was happening in Maryland that political professionals and pundits largely ignored: Republicans were winning local offices at a historic rate. Of about 130 county-level seats on the ballot that year across the state, the GOP had a net gain of 21 seats, sweeping out all the remaining Democrats in a handful of rural jurisdictions.

“The coverage was, we didn’t see a big wave in Maryland in 2010. But we saw a big wave at the county level,” said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. “If a comparable change had happened in the Maryland House of Delegates, that would be about 23 seats.”

MACo Executive Director Michael Sanderson: ‘We saw a big wave at the county level.’ Courtesy photo.

In fact, the trend continued, though slightly less dramatically, four years later. At the same time, Republicans were sweeping out all but a precious few rural Democrats who held seats in the General Assembly.

Today, there are no Democrats representing legislative districts west of Frederick city. No Democrats representing legislative districts wholly within St. Mary’s and Calvert counties. There’s one Democrat representing a district north of White Marsh along the Interstate 95 corridor. There are two Democrats representing the Eastern Shore in Annapolis: One is in a legislative subdistrict carved out to elect an African-American delegate, the other is one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents on the ballot this year.

Just as shockingly, Democrats were all but wiped out in the blue-collar districts of eastern Baltimore County in 2014. And many of these legislative and county-level seats aren’t going to swing back any time soon.

Willis said that despite the GOP pickups of the last two election cycles, “Maryland has always had a bit of purple in it.”

Even if the Republicans are making some gains in local and legislative seats, the electorate hasn’t suddenly been transformed, he said. There have always been conservative pockets in Maryland, which are usually overshadowed by the strong liberal Democratic turnout in the central part of the state. But the partisan inclinations of the voters in certain suburban, exurban and rural areas may be changing – just as former Democratic voters in the Deep South have become Republican over the past few decades.

“There are two Marylands politically, and that’s not changing,” Willis said. “It’s politically the same.”

Frederick Yang, a Democratic pollster who lives in Bethesda and has worked for numerous Maryland Democrats through the years – including Jealous this cycle – said the numbers and trends suggest the state as a whole isn’t turning less blue.

“Given the ethnic diversity in Maryland – the big African-American population, the growing Latino population, plus there are enclaves of white liberalism – I just think it’s hard,” he said.

But success breeds success. Thanks to significant gains at the county and legislative levels, the GOP now has a bigger bench of up-and-comers than it has in generations, and Republicans believe they are recruiting better candidates than they once did.

“The Republican Party has grown and matured and just gotten stronger in recent years,” said James Burton, a GOP strategist and pollster who was executive director of the Maryland Republican Party in the 1990’s. “We’ve just gotten stronger and smarter, to a degree, and our candidates are working harder. In the past, it was hard for candidates to make the decision to run when they could see what the endgame was.”

What’s more, Burton said, Republicans may be benefiting from some of the ideological and generational battles dividing the Democrats in Maryland, which aren’t too different from the internecine Democratic warfare taking place on Capitol Hill and on the national level.

“On the Democrat side, there’s a lot of people who have been around a long time, and they just get caught off-guard,” he said.

Which doesn’t mean the Republicans have strong candidates up and down the ballot. GOP leaders are keeping their distance from their U.S. Senate nominee, Tony Campbell, who has been openly critical of Hogan. In fact, Hogan’s top campaign strategist from 2014, Steve Crim, is managing the Senate campaign of wealthy independent contender Neal Simon.

The Republican candidate for comptroller, Anjali Reed Phukan, is running a shoestring campaign with no visible assistance from GOP leaders. And thanks to gerrymandering, it will be very difficult this cycle for the Republicans to make a dent in the Democrats’ 7-1 advantage in Maryland’s U.S. House delegation.

“I don’t want to oversell where we are,” said Dirk Haire, the Maryland GOP chairman.

Haire and political strategists in both parties say a truer indication of the state GOP’s strength will come in state Senate elections this year. Democrats have a 33-14 advantage in the chamber, and Republicans are aiming to flip five seats, which would make it more difficult for the Senate to override Hogan’s vetoes if he wins a second term.

In 2014, Hogan carried nine districts with Democratic state senators, and he is likely to do well in most of them again, which could aid the Republicans seeking to win those seats.

Maryland GOP Chairman Dirk Haire: ‘We’re going to pick up Senate seats.’ Courtesy photo.

“We’re going to pick up Senate seats,” Haire said. “The question is, how many?”

The answer to that question could well determine what a second Hogan term looks like, if there is one. He’d be able to block more Democratic legislation and also push through new congressional and legislative district maps following the 2020 Census that are more favorable to the GOP. Which could add further to the state’s political transformation.

“Democrats have reached their limits of gerrymandering,” Haire said.

The Hogan Factor

Hogan is the second most popular governor in the country right now – and that doesn’t hurt Republicans as they look to make gains across the state this fall and beyond.

“I think Hogan is helping the phenomenon,” Haire said. “I think Hogan is getting a statistically meaningful percentage of voters to take another look at the Republican Party.”

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), whose heavily Jewish suburban district gave Clinton a 25-point edge in 2016 after going for Hogan by 18 points in 2014, said his constituents like the fact that Hogan seems to be governing as a centrist. He predicted another strong showing for the governor this fall.

My district “tends to be a bellwether,” Zirkin said. “Larry is an incredibly popular figure. I think people like the bipartisanship – and they should. Bipartisanship is really a good thing, and you get good ideas from all ends of the spectrum.”

Zirkin also said voters find Hogan to be “an inspirational figure” because of his successful battle with cancer.

Will Hogan’s popularity mean Zirkin’s constituents will be more likely to vote Republican in the future?

Yang, the Democratic pollster, said his surveys show that a great majority of Maryland voters still prefer the Democratic agenda on almost every issue. And Willis said that Hogan’s personal popularity signifies nothing about the state’s long-term political direction.

“I would argue that the Hogan of the summer of 2018 sure sounds like the Democratic governors of the last 50 years,” he said. “He’s certainly not sounding like [Kansas Secretary of State] Kris Kobach or the other Republicans running for governor around the country. Hogan sure knows his history, and he has prophylactically insulated himself from the national party.”

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards. Courtesy photo.

Yang compared Hogan to governors in other states who have defied political trends and conventional wisdom, like Republican Gov. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, a state with a 10-0 Democratic congressional delegation and even bigger Democratic super majorities in the legislature than Maryland’s, and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in Louisiana, a state that has voted Democratic in just three of the last 13 presidential elections – and then only because there were southerners at the top of the ticket.

“Is Massachusetts purple?” Yang asked. “Is Louisiana purple? I don’t think Maryland is a purple state. I think there’s a possibility in the future. But I don’t think there’s a real possibility.”

Which doesn’t mean that if Hogan is reelected there won’t be some serious finger-pointing and soul-searching on the Democratic side. If he wins, it means the Democrats’ record in the five most recent gubernatorial elections will be 2-3. In that same time period, Democratic candidates for governor in purple Virginia have gone 4-1.

But even Hogan sees a limit to his coattails – and to his ability to help turn Maryland purple.

“With the top of the ticket it’s easier [to attract crossover voters], because everybody knows me,” he said. “And they know that, ‘even though I’m a Democrat, I’m willing to vote for this guy, despite the fact that he’s a Republican.’ But down the ballot, it’s like, ‘I’m going to vote for the Democrats and I don’t know these Republicans.’ I’m not saying it could never happen, but it’s probably one of the least likely states in America to become purple.”

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Is Maryland Becoming a Purple State?