GOP Poll Shows Opportunity for Md. House Republicans and Offers a Campaign Road Map

The Maryland State House in Annapolis. Photo by Christopher Boswell, stock.adobe.com.

A poll conducted recently for Maryland House Republican leaders suggests that the current issue and political environment favors the GOP — and could enable the badly-outnumbered House Republicans to pick up seats in the 2022 election.

But to make gains, pollster Rob Schmidt of the firm McLaughlin & Associates advises, the Republicans must work to “win the middle” and focus “more on issue contrasts rather than personality contrasts” with the Democrats.

The poll, obtained by Maryland Matters this month, is generally bullish on GOP prospects. Voters in key districts “are showing to be very receptive to a Republican issue agenda focused on economic growth, making Maryland more affordable, fighting crime, supporting law enforcement and reforming education,” Schmidt wrote in a July 30 memo to House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany). “Conversely, many of the Democrats’ liberal positions and votes on these same issues prove to be vulnerabilities for them.”

The poll gives a solid glimpse into Republican strategic thinking heading into the election year and is a possible preview of Democratic weak points in swing districts.

McLaughlin — a firm that polled for President Trump — surveyed 500 likely 2022 general election voters in every legislative district held by a House Republican and in a handful of potentially competitive districts held by House Democrats. The poll was taken July 6-8 and had a 4.5-point margin of error.

It should be noted that McLaughlin was in the field with the survey before the delta variant of the coronavirus began raging and before the chaotic U.S. withdrawal of Afghanistan — events that are currently proving to be a political drag on Democrats nationally.

Still, Schmidt’s polling memo acknowledged certain political realities. Democrats hold a 99-42 seat advantage in the House of Delegates, and Schmidt did not suggest that Republicans are in any way able to make a significant dent in Democrats’ primacy in Annapolis. But Republicans can hold their seats and pick up a few Democratic districts, Schmidt argues, by motivating their base voters while simultaneously appealing to swing voters and independents who traditionally have gravitated to Democrats in Maryland.

The polling memo starts by acknowledging that in the legislative districts that were surveyed, most voters were badly divided. It is unclear from the memo which districts were identified as potential swing districts.

President Biden’s approval rating in those districts was 45%, while 51% said they disapproved of the job he was doing. Trump’s approval rating was 50%, compared to 49% who said they disapproved. GOP Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s approval rating in the Republican and competitive Democratic districts stood at 70%, while 27% of voters disapproved.

“(B)ut his approval ratings have soft intensity as only 37% ‘strongly approve’ (which is identical to Trump) and 33% ‘somewhat approve,’ the polling memo notes. “Hogan performs better with Democrats (78% to 19%) than Republicans (63% to 34%). The 2018 elections proved that Governor Hogan’s coalition is unique and non-transferrable and our numbers indicate the same to be true currently.”

But the poll found that in the targeted districts, legislative Republicans held a 13% edge over legislative Democrats in the so-called generic ballot of initial voter preferences, 52% to 39%, with just 9% undecided — a good indication, Schmidt writes, of how polarized the electorate is.

“The Republican base is nearly uniformly coming in for the Republican candidate, 92% to 4%, while only 78% of Democrats are voting Democrat, with 14% of Democrats voting Republican and another 8% Undecided,” the polling memo says. “If Republicans are able to hold 10-15% of Democrats — which is very difficult in this environment — they will likely pick up some Democrat-held seats.”

Independent voters, the Republican pollster goes on, represent a challenge and an opportunity for GOP legislative candidates. In the initial generic survey, the nonaffiliated voters said they preferred Democratic legislative candidates, 42% to 32%, with 26% undecided. But, the polling memo says, these voters seemed receptive to arguments Republicans are likely to roll out on the campaign trail.

Overall in the targeted districts, voters by a 56% to 39% margin agreed with the statement that the Democrats have been in power in the legislature for too long and that it is time for a change. Similarly, voters by 54% to 37% margin said that Democrats are “much too liberal and out of step with everyday Marylanders.”

The poll found “an embarrassment of riches” of “policy vulnerabilities” for legislative Democrats:

  • Sixty-seven percent of voters surveyed in the targeted districts said they were less likely “to vote for Democrats after hearing they supported a program that reduces prison time for violent criminals in jail.” That’s an apparent reference to a parole reform bill that passed the General Assembly this year.
  • Sixty-four percent of voters said they were less likely to vote for Democrats “after hearing they passed a law that will increase utility rates and energy bills” and 63% said they were less likely “after hearing Democrats supported the largest tax increase in Maryland history.” Those were apparent references to a clean energy bill that passed in 2019 and the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the education reform bill that became law despite Hogan’s veto.
  • Sixty-three percent of these voters said they were less likely to vote for Democrats “after hearing they made Maryland a sanctuary state” and 61% were less likely to vote for them “after hearing Democrats supported giving millions of dollars in taxpayer benefits to undocumented immigrants.” These are apparent references to a bill that exempted Maryland law enforcement and other government agencies from cooperating with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and a successful push to include undocumented immigrants in pandemic-inspired tax relief measures.

“While these messages were unsurprisingly strongest with the Republican primary base, they also tested well with swing voters and undecided voters,” Schmidt’s polling memo states. “The key to Republican success is finding issues where there is agreement among our base and the middle and clearly these issues satisfy this prerequisite.”

By the same token, 70% of voters in the GOP poll were more likely to vote for Republicans “after hearing Republicans support cutting taxes on working families and small businesses, while 68% said they were more likely to support Republicans after hearing about GOP support for increasing school choice programs for students in failing schools and for special needs students.

Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said they were more likely to vote for Republicans after hearing “they are strong supporters of law enforcement” and 63% were more likely after hearing “Republicans support putting a trained school resource officer in every school in Maryland.”

Schmidt’s polling memo concludes that “if Republicans frame the election along these lines, they are well-positioned to grow their caucus.”

But he also injected a note of caution — and reminded the House Republican Caucus that Democrats in Annapolis control the redistricting process, which could mitigate any political tailwinds for the GOP.

“Many of these battleground races will come down to the new boundaries, individual candidates, local dynamics and resources and will likely be decided on the margins,” Schmidt wrote. “Considering the polarization and small share of persuadable voters, this will be a game of inches, not feet. Republican candidates should focus on the things they can control, like voter contact and message progression, and having discipline and a defined strategy often makes the difference in close races.”

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.