- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2018

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is lapping the Democratic field at the close of the fundraising books ahead of the June 26 primaries, as he is sitting on close to $10 million in cash for his re-election bid compared with about $600,000 for his nearest potential competitors.

Since winning in a stunning upset in 2014, Mr. Hogan has consistently championed themes tied to jobs and economic growth, along with lower taxes and less government regulation after years of one-party Democratic rule in Maryland, to score eye-popping approval ratings that would be the envy of just about any other governor in the country.

Despite national anti-Republican headwinds and a crowded field of Democratic contenders eager to take him on after their primary contest next week, political handicappers are forecasting another Hogan win in the fall. That would make Mr. Hogan the first Republican governor in Maryland to win re-election in about 60 years.

He has the money to do it — at least so far — after raising about $1 million in the May 16 to June 10 period.

Mr. Hogan and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, were collectively sitting on more than $9.4 million at the end of the period — nearly twice as much as Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown had at a comparable point during Mr. O’Malley’s first re-election bid in 2010, according to a memo from Hogan campaign chairman Tom Kelso.

With the governor’s high approval ratings and massive war chest, Mr. Kelso said, the campaign couldn’t ask to be in a stronger position heading into the general election.

“Our potential opponents are quickly burning through their remaining funds as they continue to compete for their party’s nomination and will likely begin the general election battered, bruised and nearly broke,” Mr. Kelso said.

Democrats, though, say President Trump is helping mobilize the public to vote out Republicans en masse and that Mr. Hogan will have an uphill climb in November once a clear opponent emerges. He will face one of about a half-dozen major Democratic candidates for governor who are squaring off in the primary.

But several political handicappers have pegged the race as at least leaning Republican in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 2-to-1.

Polls have shown former NAACP head Ben Jealous and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker emerging as the front-runners in the Democratic race, though many of those surveyed said they were still undecided.

Any one of them will have their hands full against Mr. Hogan, whose 68 percent approval rating in one Morning Consult poll this year was second-highest in the country, behind only Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s 71 percent rating.

Mr. Hogan isn’t especially nasty to opponents and comes across as a likable, sympathetic person — particularly since his battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma starting in 2015, said Richard E. Vatz, a Towson University professor who specializes in political persuasion.

“I think it would take something unforeseen to change the fortunes of … Hogan,” he said.

Years of one-party Democratic rule and ever-increasing taxes and fees in the state gave Mr. Hogan an opportunity to try something different — and Marylanders have liked the results so far, he said.

“There was a tremendous consensus when Gov. Hogan started articulating the tremendous number of taxes [that] were increasing and increasing and increasing. People were seeing that their pocketbooks were being hurt,” Mr. Vatz said. “I think it reaches a point where they say, ‘That’s enough.’”

The first TV ad of Mr. Hogan’s re-election campaign notes that he worked across the aisle to set Maryland in a “new direction.” He touts $1.2 billion in relief from taxes, fees and tolls, four straight budgets without any tax increases, and efforts to boost education funding and the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Together, we’re stronger than ever — Maryland strong,” a narrator says.

Sixty-two percent of Maryland residents in a Gonzales Research & Media Services poll released this month say things in the state are moving in the right direction — which is a boost for Mr. Hogan, said Mr. Vatz.

“People assume if the economic situation is going well — and it’s going awfully well in Maryland — that it’s due to the governor,” he said.

Mr. Hogan is someone who also doesn’t come across as politically calculating and doesn’t view legislation through a partisan lens, said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

“I think in a very, very polarized era, that really appeals to a lot of people,” he said.

Mr. Hogan has also staked out his own ground in the Republican Party separate and apart from Mr. Trump, whose effect on the midterms is worrying Republicans in moderate states and House districts — let alone a state like Maryland, where the president is downright toxic.

Mr. Hogan didn’t attend the 2016 Republican National Convention and criticized Mr. Trump in August after the president said there were fine people on both sides of the violent clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one woman dead.

One key for those marks of separation from the president is that they don’t come across as inauthentic, Mr. Eberly said.

“Larry Hogan’s politics never really fell in line with Trump’s before Trump ever existed, so it didn’t seem like he was just as a matter of convenience declaring himself anti-Trump,” he said.

Mr. Hogan led his potential Democratic challengers by double digits in the Gonzales poll released this month — even as nearly half of likely Democratic primary voters said removing Mr. Trump from office is the most important issue for them in the primary.

Mr. Eberly said some of the political dynamics in Maryland are similar to those in Massachusetts with the popular Mr. Baker, who appears well on his way to re-election in another historically deep-blue state.

“You’ve got those two folks who have never been in the Trump fold of the party, elected in a state that isn’t all that favorable to Republicans, so the fact that they have always really distanced themselves from the president has worked to their advantage,” Mr. Eberly said.

Democrats, though, say Mr. Hogan has overstated the strides the state has made during his time in office, and the state party recently announced a statewide tour to highlight how the governor has “shortchanged” the state in areas such as education funding.

“Governor Hogan will learn that no amount of money will make Maryland voters forget that he has shortchanged Maryland students and teachers,” said Fabion Seaton, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party. “Marylanders know that while Governor Hogan has underfunded our schools and stood with Betsy DeVos, Democrats are fighting to give every Maryland student a world-class education.”

Mr. Seaton said no Republican should feel safe with Mr. Trump as the head of the party.

“Trump’s disastrous policies have energized voters against every politician with an ‘R’ after their names on a ballot,” Mr. Seaton said. “Gov. Hogan faces an uphill battle in November.”

Still, whoever wins the Democratic primary next week will start the general election well behind Mr. Hogan in terms of cash on hand.

Mr. Jealous’ campaign reported raising about $400,000 in the past month, and along with running mate Susan Turnbull’s accounts finished with close to $400,000 on hand as of June 10. He also is getting a boost from outside groups spending about $1 million to promote his candidacy.

Mr. Baker and running mate Elizabeth Embry raised more than $200,000 and finished with about $240,000 on hand.

Baltimore lawyer Jim Shea raised close to $164,000 and finished the period with close to $565,000 on hand.

Alec Ross, a technology entrepreneur who worked in the Obama administration, raised about $110,000 and finished with about $180,000 on hand.

Krishanti Vignarajah, former policy director for first lady Michelle Obama, raised and spent little but finished the period with more than $500,000 on hand for the closing stretch.

State Sen. Richard Madaleno finished the reporting period with about $16,000 on hand, though he has opted into the state’s public financing system to accept matching funds.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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