Josh Kurtz: Are Dems Overconfident About 2022 in Maryland?

Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R): The frontrunner in the 2022 gubernatorial election? File photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

The Maryland Democratic Party is giddy.

Two national political handicapping websites, The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, recently took early assessments of the 2022 political landscape and rated the Maryland gubernatorial election as a very good pickup opportunity for the Democrats. The state Democratic Party and the Democratic Governors Association last week sent out fundraising emails boasting about it.

Why wouldn’t political handicappers look at an open-seat gubernatorial election, one without the gravity-defying Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) in it, and come away with that prediction? The political fundamentals of the state, which just gave President Biden 65.4% of the vote, demand it.

And why wouldn’t Democratic organizations broadcast the ratings? That’s what they’re supposed to do, to build interest and enthusiasm and raise a little dough.

But the view closer to the ground suggests something considerably different — and serves as a reminder that Democrats ought to be proceeding very cautiously as they look ahead to the 2022 cycle in Maryland.

Some of the Democrats’ giddiness was predicated on the Crystal Ball’s suggestion that U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris could somehow wind up as the Republican nominee for governor. Not going to happen.

Could an acolyte of President Trump’s seek the GOP gubernatorial nomination? Maybe even one with money to spend and/or a degree of name recognition?

Yes, it’s possible. But Republicans are no dummies. They know that to have a chance of competing in the general election in Maryland, they’ve got to run a Hogan-like candidate, or the closest approximation.

That’s why Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R) could be such a solid contender for governor if he runs. He excites no one. He’s a nerd. He comes off a little like an awkward sitcom dad. He doesn’t have Hogan’s political instincts.

But he also offends no one. He’s got governing experience. He has no discernible right-wing ideology. He’d be looking to make history as the state’s first Black governor (and the first LG ever elected to the top job), and he’d be running with the Hogan imprimatur. That’s not a bad place to start.

We don’t know if Rutherford is going to run. We don’t know if the state party has a plan B, though on paper, state Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz or Harford County Executive Barry Glassman also look like credible potential contenders. We also don’t know if the GOP will be able to avoid an ideologically fraught primary. But Rutherford, possibly with Schultz as his running mate, would be a very good recruit.

Look what else the Republicans might have going for them in Maryland. 2022, if history is any guide, could be a pretty good year for Republicans nationally. Biden is riding high right now, and the hangover from Trump could last for an awfully long time. It may be that voters come to realize that Trump’s tenure was so ruinous that the traditional midterm slump for the party in the White House may not materialize in any kind of significant way. But that’s not something the Democrats can count on.

The pundits and some Democrats talk about a splintered Republican Party, but that’s frankly overblown, epitomized by the laughable notion that Harris could become the GOP gubernatorial nominee. Already on Capitol Hill, the Republicans have essentially come together in opposition to everything Biden does, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is measuring the drapes for the speaker’s suite only recently desecrated by Trump supporters.

Whether a latter-day tea party movement materializes, as it did in the early Obama years, remains to be seen. But you can already hear the Republican complaints about raging socialism in the Democratic agenda and the imminent threats from south of the border; the ads with AOC and Nancy Pelosi (oh god, yet again) and “New Yorker” Chuck Schumer (“New Yorker” being a euphemism) and “San Francisco liberal” Kamala Harris. Even in Democratic Maryland, those ads will take their toll on the Democratic nominee for governor.

We don’t know yet who will emerge as the Democratic nominee. We don’t even know yet who’s going to run. The Democrats could nominate a strong candidate, or they could nominate a flawed one, like their last two standard-bearers.

One thing we can predict is that the Democratic nominee is going to emerge from the primary battered and broke, with at least a portion of the party’s electorate disappointed by the results. Into that very likely scenario will flow national Republican dollars, ready to define the Democratic nominee as an AOC-loving socialist, regardless of who the candidate actually is.

Think of all the potential Democratic candidates for governor, from, alphabetically, Alsobrooks to Ulman. Nobody is ever going to be able to totally dodge the Republicans’ attempts to brand them, and only U.S. Rep. David J. Trone as the Democratic nominee, with all his untold millions, would have the wherewithal to counterpunch right out of the chute.

Add one other factor into the mix as you’re toting up the pluses and minuses in the political ledger: Hogan could very well be the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate.

We’re not putting money on that at the moment. We side with those who believe Hogan would much rather run for president in 2024 than for Senate in 2022. We agree that he could find serving in the Senate confining, and as a candidate for Senate, he could actually be susceptible to the Democratic attacks that he’s more in lockstep with the national GOP than he wants to let on. He’d have to defend his contention that he’d have voted against the latest federal stimulus package because it wasn’t the product of a bipartisan deal and contained too much pork.

We also think, no matter how popular Hogan remains, that he would face a very tough race against Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) — in part because Van Hollen is a skilled and aggressive campaigner, and in part because the dynamics in a Senate race are so different from a gubernatorial election. No matter what Hogan is peddling (Susan Collins! Mitt Romney! John McCain! Etc. etc.), in a Senate race Democrats can legitimately counter with Trump, Mitch McConnell, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz.

But still. Hogan craves the spotlight. National Republicans will beg him to challenge Van Hollen. A Hogan-Van Hollen battle would be one of the marquee elections of the 2022 cycle, and Hogan would like that. Money would flow into the state like never before. Hogan could put his personal popularity to the test. And imagine if he won — he’d be an even bigger giant killer than before. That could only burnish his reputation and fuel his national ambitions.

Recent history has shown that you don’t have to be a get-along, go-along type to succeed in the U.S. Senate. You can freelance. You can buck your party. You can attract attention in a variety of ways.

So, yeah — the Senate isn’t a natural fit for Hogan. If he ran against Van Hollen, he might lose. But if he runs — even though he had zero coattails in 2018 — his presence as a candidate would impact the political dynamic in the state, up and down the ballot.

It’s reasonable to think, in a state like Maryland, that any Democratic gubernatorial nominee who isn’t an awkward, underfunded neophyte, will have an advantage in the general election against any Republican nominee — even Rutherford. But all the conditions we’ve outlined can’t be discounted. And remember the Democrats’ record in the last five gubernatorial elections in this supposedly oh-so-blue state: two wins, three losses.

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