Maryland Gov. Hogan, mostly quiet during Democratic primary, to launch major counter-offensive

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

To outward appearances, Gov. Larry Hogan has been taking the 2018 campaign easy.

While the seven Democrats running for governor are fighting to raise money and grab attention — regularly attacking Hogan in the process — the popular Republican governor has been enjoying the luxury of a primary campaign without a challenger and appears to be paying them little mind.

In the last two weeks, he publicly announced the birth of a granddaughter and adopted two puppies. He made plans to plant the first beach umbrella of the season at Ocean City, and announced that E-ZPass devices will henceforth be free for Maryland motorists, just in time for Memorial Day trips across the Bay Bridge.

He quips that the Democratic candidates are the only people in the state who strongly disapprove of the job he’s doing.

“Nothing about it keeps me up at night,” Hogan said this week. “I don’t put a whole lot of thought into it, frankly.”

But behind the scenes, he’s been planning an expensive counter offensive.

On Tuesday, Hogan will launch a $1.3 million statewide television campaign to remind voters why his job approval ratings are so high. He’s planned a June 2 rally at a jet hangar in Hagerstown. His reelection campaign kickoff party is set for June 9, days before early voting begins in the Democratic contest.

“Eventually we’re going to have a real opponent,” Hogan said. “They’re going to have a real campaign. And I’m sure they’re going to be saying things that aren’t really flattering, and we’re going to be running the strongest campaign that we possibly can.”

Hogan, who is trying to become the first Republican to be reelected governor of Maryland in more than 60 years, has reasons to be calm about his prospects and reasons to be concerned.

He’s one of the most popular governors in the country, in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1. He has maintained consistently high approval ratings throughout his first term. Still, an anti-Trump boost in Democratic turnout could douse his chances.

As national political headwinds make the 2018 midterms appear dicey for many Republicans across the country, political analysts say, Hogan is in an enviable position. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has put the Maryland gubernatorial race in its “likely Republican” column, and labeled Hogan the heavy favorite.

“Among Republican incumbent governors seeking a second term, Hogan is in pretty good shape,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the influential newsletter. “His job numbers are solid, unemployment is low and the Democratic primary is a gift.”

The seven major Democratic candidates have struggled to raise money or connect with voters.

Hogan, meanwhile, has the megaphone of incumbency — and more than twice as much money as the Democratic field combined. He has $9 million in the bank and no primary opponent.

“Much of Hogan’s success is that he is a moderate, particularly in comparison to most of the other GOP governors,” Duffy said. “He doesn’t pursue an ideological agenda and works to maintain good working relationships with the state legislature. He is also accessible to the average voter. They relate to his battle with cancer or getting a dog.”

Republican former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a political mentor and friend to Hogan, has urged him to ignore the Democratic primary as long as possible.

“I said to him, ‘Just don’t engage in the politics too quickly. People really like you because you’re governing, because of what you’ve done over these three years,” Christie said. “There is no reason to change the formula that’s working really well for the state, that’s been working really well for Larry personally.”

Hogan has been mostly avoiding Republican politics, too. He’s been judicious with his endorsements — The Sun could identify fewer than 20 this election year — and he’s limited his involvement mostly to GOP leaders who have helped him and battleground areas that could help tip the balance of power in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

Several of those races are in Baltimore County, a swing region that helped carry Hogan to his upset win in 2014.

“One of the brilliant things the governor is doing is he realizes the value of his brand,” said Al Mendelson, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee. “Governor Hogan is one of the most popular governors, and every candidate that he touches is hoping to get some of that luster.

“Governor Hogan has protected that luster by, really, just not endorsing every Republican.”

Across Baltimore County, candidates who have won his support have stamped their campaign literature and roadside signs with “Hogan endorsed.”

“It’s almost like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” Mendelson said.

For all the governor’s strength, the Democratic Party’s registration advantage and strong anti-Trump sentiment are cause for GOP concern — and Democratic hope.

Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathleen Matthews said the party has “been organizing voters in every county in Maryland for the past year and building the grassroots infrastructure that will power Democratic candidates to victory up and down the ballot in November.”

While Hogan’s job approval rating has hovered around 70 percent in recent polls, President Donald J. Trump’s approval rating in the state is in the low 30’s.

Hogan has strategically distanced himself from Trump, but political analysts say Trump could inspire new voters to show up in November to cast a ballot for any Democrat.

Hogan is counting on a coalition of Republicans, independents and conservative Democrats to win. So far, no public poll has shown that more than 50 percent of voters plan to vote for him.

Donald F. Norris, professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Hogan is wise to disengage from the Democrats during primary season and to mount an aggressive pro-Hogan campaign.

“Why would he engage seven people when he’s got four months to beat up the one candidate who’s going the win?” Norris said.

Instead, Hogan is using his money advantage to sell people on his record.

“That is really smart,” Norris said, “because if he does nothing, then all of the attention is on the Democrats. He can’t allow that to happen.”

While Hogan hasn’t taken on the Democratic challengers directly, the Maryland Republican Party and the Republican Governors Association has.

The state GOP released a scathing satirical video on the morning of the first Democratic debate warning voters who watch that it might put them to sleep. The RGA’s rapid response team has taken aim at several Democrats, including former NAACP chief Ben Jealous and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.

Also running in the primary are labor organizer Valerie Ervin, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, lawyer Jim Shea and Krish Vignarajah, a former policy director for Michelle Obama.

The Republican Governors Association works to elect GOP governors across the country. Spokesman Jon Thompson declined to say how much the organization planned to spend to help Hogan, but said “we are not taking anything for granted.”

“The RGA is all-in for Governor Hogan’s re-election,” Thompson said.

Some analysts question how much outside help Democrats will get.

“There are limited resources and much better targets [for Democrats] than Maryland,” said Duffy, the Cook Political Report analyst.

Hogan’s media blitz will begin in Baltimore on Tuesday with a spot designed to remind voters what they like about the governor.

“The stage is set for him to have a good run,” said Russ Schriefer, Hogan’s campaign strategist. “That said, this is still Maryland. For a Republican it’s always an away game, and no Republican has been reelected governor since 1954. We anticipate a tough race and a very competitive race, and that’s exactly what we’re preparing to run.”

ecox@baltsun.com

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