Can a Democrat win the Maryland Race for Governor in 2018?

Sounds like a trick question, doesn’t it?  In normal political times, the answer would be “Of course, why is there any doubt?”

But, as we all know, these are not normal political times.  In 2014, Larry Hogan shocked the Democratic Party establishment by upsetting its hand-picked candidate, Anthony Brown.  Since then, the incumbent Governor has convinced some observers that he is invulnerable because of his very high approval ratings in public polls.  His approval level of 65% in the most recent survey places Hogan as the most popular Republican governor in the country.

While Hogan has certainly demonstrated political skills, his standing in the polls is not purely a result of how he has governed.  His widely admired personal fight against cancer has definitely given him a boost in the polls.

More to the point, however, the “approve/disapprove” question is the wrong one to rely on.  Recently a Washington Post/University of Maryland survey asked voters whether they would support Hogan for reelection in 2018.  That number–41%–suggests that he is less a political behemoth than a normal Republican running in heavily Democratic Maryland.

In 2014, Democratic candidate Brown underperformed Martin O’Malley’s 2006 campaign in all but three counties in Maryland.  Even in counties that O’Malley lost, his losing margins were considerably less than Brown’s.  To take a couple of examples, in Allegany County, Brown won 23% of the vote while O’Malley had 42%.  In Calvert, the comparative figures were 29% and 42%.

In the traditionally Democratic strongholds of Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George’s, Brown won by a larger margin in his home county and had about the same advantage in the other two.  However, in the two next largest jurisdictions, O’Malley outperformed Brown by significant amounts:  Anne Arundel, 42% to 32%; and Baltimore County, 48% to 39%.

If you split the difference in the percentages for Brown and O’Malley and assumed a 2014 turnout, Hogan would lose in 2018.  Obviously, elections are more complicated than just the manipulations of numbers, but these calculations remind us that Hogan will be running uphill in Democratic Maryland in 2018.

Moreover, other factors would also seem to  be working against his reelection bid.  The first is turnout.  Fewer voters went to the polls in the 2014 election than in 2006.   Brown tallied 124,000 fewer votes than O’Malley.   It’s hard to imagine any Democratic candidate in 2018 running a worse campaign than Brown did in 2014.

And that may be the least of Hogan’s problems.  The level of Democratic activism since the election of Donald Trump as president strongly suggests that turnout in next year’s elections, nationwide as well as in Maryland, is likely to surge.

The other widely discussed narrative about Hogan’s 2014 win was his ability to appeal to white working class voters, many of whom had traditionally voted for Democrats.  Was Hogan an early indicator of Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential election?

This will certainly be one of the keys to next year’s race, but Hogan’s path is far from assured.  Other than reducing highway tolls and cancelling the Red Line in Baltimore, his record is a really thin one.  His legislative victories have been claims rather than reality; he has failed to impose his will on the budget; his vetoes have all been overridden; and his crossover attempts, such as supporting a ban on fracking, aren’t going to persuade many Democrats to vote for him.

Hogan is trying to walk a delicate balance between keeping his base happy and broadening his appeal.  He can’t win with just Republican voters, but his ability to attract Democrats and independents may have waned.

And, as already referenced, there will be the looming presence of Donald Trump in the 2018 race.  Hogan’s posture up to now has been to keep his distance from the president and to avoid commenting on what is going on in Washington whenever possible.  At times, the approach has required convoluted verbal gymnastics.

If Congressional Republicans had passed their version of health care, Hogan would be dealing with the very negative impact of the new law on Maryland.  That possibility is still on the table.  There’s a long list of other Trump initiatives that could come into play by next year, but the most significant impact will arise from whatever budget is passed in 2017.  Given Maryland’s historical reliance on federal funding, there’s no version of a Trump budget that is good for the State.

Hogan won’t be able to keep dancing around the impact of actions taken by Trump and Congressional Republicans.  He will be faced with the difficult choice of which voters to upset by whatever positions he takes.  And whoever is the Democratic candidate should make this issue a centerpiece of a campaign against Hogan.

Finally, of course, there’s the question of who the Democratic candidate will be.  The current list of prospects is eight, but it’s hard to know how many of them are serious.  One interpretation is that the presumptive frontrunners, Rushern Baker and Kevin Kamenetz, have not scared off other contenders.  Another view is that Hogan hasn’t scared them off either.

There are some outsider candidates, non-politicians if you will, as well as  one candidate from 2014 giving it a second try, Doug Gansler.  In the next few months, starting in June, we’ll start seeing what advantages and disadvantages each of these candidates brings to the race.

The conventional wisdom is that a bruising primary would damage the winner and complicate the efforts to raise enough money for the General Election.  A contrary view is that a contested race will stimulate turnout and help in the November election.

Will Democrats show up at the polls and will they unite behind the winner of the primary?  The answers to those questions will have a major impact on calculating Hogan’s chances of reelection.  At this point, despite Hogan appearing as the favorite before the race really began, he has a very good chance to be a one-term governor.