Maryland is not a swing state. President Trump is expected to lose here by 25 points or more this fall.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. is trying to stay as far away from the president politically as he can, even though they are from the same party. And Maryland GOP leaders and strategists, looking ahead to 2022, generally acknowledge that Republicans can’t win statewide if they practice or preach Trump’s brand of politics.
But Trump still casts a large shadow over the Maryland GOP — and the future of state politics.
As politicians from both parties begin to contemplate the next election, Trump’s fate in November will have a great bearing on what the state’s political landscape will look like. And despite Hogan’s soaring popularity, the Maryland Republican Party appears to be more of a Trump party than a Hogan party right now.
That’s partially just a function of it being a presidential year. But it’s been illustrated by the prominence of David Bossie at this week’s GOP convention.
Bossie is the Republican National Committeeman from Maryland and chairman of the state’s convention delegation. He’s co-chairman of the Trump campaign in Maryland, along with U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris, the lone Republican in the state’s congressional delegation. But Bossie is also a former Trump campaign strategist and president of Citizens United, the prominent national conservative group.
Bossie is the bridge between the Maryland GOP and Trumpland. He has conducted all the delegation’s official business at the convention this week and sat in the front row at Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Wednesday night.
But one GOP strategist said there’s a genuine disappointment with Hogan among conservative activists in the state, and that’s prompting them to be more vocal about their support for Trump.
“The attitude is, ‘we got screwed, where do we go from here?’ I think that’s why more people are turning to Trump,” this Republican said.
2020 has been a strange political year. With several key events canceled this summer that usually serve as preliminaries for the 2022 political season, it’s hard to tell just where the Republican race to replace Hogan and other elections in Maryland stand at the moment. COVID-19 has largely frozen political races in both parties.
“It’s hard to ask people for money or contemplate doing political events when everything is shut down,” said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman (R). “I put the pause button on everything.”
But that doesn’t mean politicians and political activists aren’t starting to think about what might be ahead. The race to replace Hogan appears to be wide open in both party primaries. The comptroller’s seat is expected to be vacant, and the office of Attorney General could be — possible opportunities for ambitious Republicans.
The GOP needs to find a candidate to challenge U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D), and congressional and legislative maps could be altered drastically — changing the calculus for dozens of politicians in the state even further.
Maryland Matters interviewed more than a dozen Republican officeholders, strategists and activists this week, along with other political professionals, as the virtual Republican National Convention was unfolding, to discuss 2022 and the state of the state GOP. At an ordinary in-person convention, conversations like these would be taking place morning, noon and night — but instead, the level of outward politicking is low.
What emerges in conversations with GOP stalwarts — many of whom requested anonymity in order to speak freely — is that many potential candidates for higher office are reluctant to come forward because they want to see whether Trump is re-elected in November. If Trump wins, the thinking almost universally goes, it will be tough for Republicans to compete statewide in Maryland — more so than usual.
“Six year itch” elections — midterms when a president is midway through his second term — are usually tough for the incumbent party. And there could even be “Hogan fatigue” at that point, even with his stratospheric poll ratings.
What’s more, with conservatives in the GOP ascendant, “it’s going to be tough for a Larry Hogan-type candidate to succeed in the primary,” said Patrick Gonzales, president of Gonzales Survey and Media Research, a polling firm in Arnold.
“I think it’s going to be very hard for a Republican for statewide office in 2022 to get through a primary that’s going to allow them to get to a general election and then be competitive,” Gonzales said. “It’s a Catch-22.”
A national Republican consultant with ties to Maryland elected officials put it more bluntly.
“If Trump wins, crazy people will run [for governor] and crazy people will be nominated,” the strategist said.
If former vice president Joe Biden defeats Trump, the task for Republicans may become easier, because the party that has won the White House often stumbles in midterm elections two years later. Maryland is not immune to these trends.
“If it’s Biden, I think it’s a wide-open thing,” the national Republican consultant said.
The potential lineup
Any conversation on the GOP side about the 2022 gubernatorial election begins with Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford. As Hogan’s No. 2, who has been running the day-to-day operations at the State House since the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March, Rutherford knows how government works and has upped his visibility some, even though he’s not well known and does not possess a flashy personality.
Rutherford was beginning to make the rounds on the political front before the pandemic hit, and caught some attention among political insiders when he hired his own press secretary and installed a politically savvy chief of staff. But the top aide with political chops, Cory M. Dennis, who was political director for Hogan’s 2018 re-election bid, just left for a job in Louisiana.
Rutherford himself, while a competent and wonky government professional, is not a political natural. And there’s some speculation that his family may not be all that enamored of a possible run.
This week, Rutherford did not take advantage of the Republican National Convention to reach out to members of the delegation or other party activists.
“He continues to be focused on running state government and supporting the governor’s coronavirus response,” the lieutenant governor’s spokeswoman, Hannah Marr, said in an email.
Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz is also mentioned as a possible candidate for governor. A former state lawmaker, Schulz has been a loyal Hogan lieutenant, spreading the gospel of his pro-business policies, moving around the state and making important contacts in her official role. But she has shown few signs of political organizing or outreach at this stage — and spent convention week on a family vacation.
Glassman will be termed out in 2022 and said he would look at possible races for governor, comptroller, or a congressional seat, depending on how the district lines our drawn. But he did not rule out the possibility of returning to the private sector.
Glassman has the kind of political resume that would make him a natural candidate for governor on the Democratic side: Harford County Council, House of Delegates, state Senate and county executive — including a stint last year as president of the Maryland Association of counties. But even though he tells audiences he was inspired to become active in politics by Ronald Reagan, Glassman’s long history of working with Democrats, including service on a committee looking to fund the education reform recommendations of the so-called Kirwan Commission, makes him suspect with some hardcore conservatives.
“When people are looking for a bomb thrower, that’s not really me,” Glassman conceded.
Prior to his defeat in the 2018 election, former Anne Arundel County executive Steve Schuh (R) made it known that he would be interested in running for governor when Hogan’s term ended in 2022. Now Schuh works for Hogan, heading up state government’s office battling opioid addiction. Some Republican strategists said he could wind up running for governor in 2022 despite his loss to Steuart Pittman (D) in 2018.
Many Republicans also wonder if a deep-pocketed business person could wind up running for governor. But no names come obviously to mind.
Then there’s one of the best known and most charismatic Republicans in the state: former RNC chairman Michael S. Steele, a former lieutenant governor and state GOP chief who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2006 — a Democratic year. Steele has been a high-profile Trump critic, however, and recently signed on as an adviser to the Lincoln Project, a group of dissident Republican strategists who are working to defeat Trump.
Under these circumstances, it is difficult to see Steele succeeding in a Republican primary, but he said he’s comfortable with this circumstance. Steele said that if joining the Lincoln Project and speaking out against the president impacted any “future opportunities” he might have, he is comfortable with that risk, because his conscience demanded it.
Many GOP professionals believe the conservative wing of the party will almost certainly put up at least one candidate for governor in 2022. It won’t be someone as high-profile and politically accomplished as Harris, but a conservative candidate could be formidable in the primary.
Robin Ficker, the Montgomery County anti-tax activist who was run unsuccessfully for office numerous times over the past four decades, appears to be gearing up for a statewide campaign on a platform that includes cutting the state sales tax by 2 cents.
One longtime Republican consultant in Maryland noted that in 2014, Hogan won a four-way GOP primary for governor not because he was the most conservative candidate in the race, but by force of personality — and because he was far and away the most strategic contender. That helped Hogan in the general election as well — and that’s a playbook a Republican candidate could successfully attempt to duplicate in 2022.
“I think if the candidate has a personality versus a generic race, that makes a huge difference,” the veteran operative said.
Will Republicans put up credible contenders in downballot statewide races?
Some Republicans see David R. Brinkley, Hogan’s Budget and Management secretary, as a possible candidate for comptroller. But how big a prize is that job for Maryland Republicans? A Republican last held the position in 1900.
The same is effectively true for the position of Attorney General, even though Craig Wolf ran a credible campaign in 2018. A Republican last held the job in 1954.
Several Republicans are seen as possible candidates for Congress – but it all depends on what the congressional boundaries look like and whether the state’s only Republican congressman, Harris, decides to stick around in 2022. Potential candidates for that seat if it becomes open include state House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, who is a former Harris staffer; state Senate Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr., and state Natural Resources Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, among others.
If a Western Maryland seat is drawn that looks more enticing for Republicans than the district’s current contours, Schulz or Brinkley could be tempted to run. That seat could also be attractive to state Sen. Michael R. Hough and other members of the legislature. Hough is also reportedly thinking about a run for the vacant Frederick County executive seat.
State lawmakers who have safe seats will have to make a calculation about running for higher office in 2022 — whether they’re willing to risk their seats. Running for Congress in a presidential year like 2024 enables them to take a chance without sacrificing their legislative sinecures.
Building the bench
2022 presents other opportunities for the GOP in local races — where Republicans build their bench for future elections. Many Republicans believe Pittman, the Anne Arundel County executive who upset Schuh in 2018, will be vulnerable — especially if Biden is elected president. County Councilwoman Jessica Haire, wife of Maryland Republican Chairman Dirk Haire, is seen as the likeliest Republican candidate, though Del. Sid A. Saab and former Del. Herbert L. McMillan are also possible candidates.
With Glassman departing in Harford County, the executive job will be up for grabs and a competitive GOP primary is expected. Possible candidates include state Sen. Robert Cassilly; Billy Boniface, a top adviser to Glassman and former county councilman; and State’s Attorney Albert J. Peisinger Jr.
Wicomico County could also see a competitive primary for county executive in 2022 — depending on how the ongoing controversy over how to replace the late county executive Bob Culver is resolved.
But one GOP strategist offered a dose of reality for ambitious Republicans thinking of running for high office in 2022 to consider: the state economy could still be in a shambles due to COVID-19.
“Who wants to be governor in two years?” the strategist said. “There’s still issues with the economy and COVID is not going away. I think we have a big reckoning coming. If you want to run for governor, you better have some pretty big ideas.”
Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report.