- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2017

More than a year before Maryland’s gubernatorial primaries, Democrats already are jockeying for position to challenge Gov. Larry Hogan.

Executives, lawyers and lawmakers reportedly have expressed an interest in running for the office, but none has yet addressed the elephant in the room — that is, the Republican incumbent’s statewide popularity.

So far, only one Democrat has officially tossed his hat into the ring — Baltimore tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, who announced his candidacy late last week by trying to tie Mr. Hogan to President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, both staunch supporters of charter schools and school vouchers.

“Our schools need a new champion, not a governor who brought Betsy DeVos and her anti-public school agenda right into a Maryland classroom to promote their misguided ideas,” Mr. Ross, a 45-year-old former Baltimore school teacher, said in his campaign announcement video.

That kind of association ordinarily would hurt a GOP moderate in a deep-blue state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 2-to-1.

But independent voters comprise the state’s fastest-growing voting segment, having more than doubled in number over the past two decades and now accounting for at least 17.5 percent of registered voters, according to statistics by the Maryland State Board of Elections.

In addition, Mr. Hogan repeatedly said during last year’s presidential campaign that he did not support Mr. Trump and actually voted for his own father, former Prince George’s County executive Lawrence Hogan Sr., who died last month.

And Maryland already supports 50 charter schools, which teach about 18,000 students and have 14,000 families on waiting lists throughout the state, according to the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

What’s more, the Republican governor has remained notably popular among voters. A Goucher College poll in February found that 63 percent of residents approved of Mr. Hogan’s job performance, the same percentage as last year’s poll.

Also, a University of Maryland-Washington Post poll in late March found that 65 percent of voters approved of his job performance, down from 71 percent in September but still the poll’s highest approval rate of any of the past three governors.

Mr. Ross, who moved on from Baltimore schools to serve as a tech adviser in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, is running on a platform of boosting the economy and investing more in education. He did not return requests for comment.

Mileah Kromer, director of the Sara T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College in Baltimore, said that Mr. Ross’ fresh, youthful image might not help him in the primary where voters to be older party die-hards.

“The fact that I don’t know a ton about him speaks to the same problem that other outside candidates have,” Ms. Kromer said in an interview. “They have to battle name recognition.”

For Mr. Ross to have a shot at winning the Democratic gubernatorial primary on June 26, 2018, he will have to reach people in liberal strongholds like Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, Ms. Kromer said.

At least seven other Democrats have said they are mulling a run for governor: U.S. Rep. John Delaney, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., former state attorney general Douglas F. Gansler, former NAACP executive director Benjamin Jealous and James Shea, former chairman of the Venable law firm.

Meanwhile, a Republican governor has not won re-election in the state in more than 60 years.

“The election is still a long way off, but I think what happens in national politics and how Governor Hogan does or does not respond is going to matter,” Michael Hanmer said during the release of the University of Maryland-Washington Post poll in March.

Mr. Hanmer, a government and politics professor at Maryland, said a general backlash against the Republican Party could propel a Democrat over Mr. Hogan, even if his approval ratings remain high.

State Democrats have slammed Mr. Hogan for not speaking out more against Mr. Trump, pushing the governor to comment on some of the president’s biggest initiatives, including his recently revealed tax reform plan.

“Since Governor Hogan likes to grandstand on taxes a lot, Marylanders deserve to know where he falls on Trump’s so-called plan that will jack up their tax bills. The Maryland Democratic Party is keeping track,” state party spokesman Bryan Lesswing said Monday.

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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