HAGERSTOWN — Gov. Larry Hogan chose some of the friendliest territory in Maryland to hold the first large rally of his 2018 re-election campaign Saturday — and his target was a familiar one.
The Republican governor had little to say about the nine-candidate Democratic field seeking the nomination to deny him a second term in November. But he clearly relished replaying the greatest hits of his 2014 campaign, excoriating his Democratic predecessor for “43 consecutive tax increases,” businesses fleeing Maryland and the storm water fee Hogan calls the “rain tax.”
“We can’t go back to the days of Martin O’Malley,” Hogan told several hundred at the Rider Jet Center at Hagerstown Airport. The enthusiastic crowd had been primed by a campaign video that was largely devoted to painting a picture of how dismal a place Maryland was before Hogan defeated then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown.
Standing before what organizers billed as the largest Maryland flag in existence, Hogan even adopted one of O’Malley’s favorite catch phrases: “It’s about going forward, not backward.”
The rally — a warm-up to the official campaign kickoff in Annapolis next Saturday — capped a day of official and political events in Washington County, which Hogan carried with 73 percent of the vote four years ago.
Buoyed by the crowd, Hogan set an even more ambitious goal for Western Maryland this year.
“Let’s go for 90 percent,” he said.
Jim Barnett, Hogan’s campaign manager, said Western Maryland was a natural place to launch Hogan’s re-election drive.
“This is an important part of the state for the governor,” Barnett said. “He’s provided Western Maryland with a lot of attention. He’s got a great crew of supporters in this area.”
Hogan showcased the attention — and dollars — he’s bestowed on Western Maryland earlier in the day in downtown Hagerstown. He took part in a groundbreaking ceremony for an expansion of the historic Maryland Theater on Potomac Street, part of a downtown revitalization project for which his administration provided $8 million.
The governor basked in the praise of the theater’s managers and local elected officials and happily jumped into a miniature earth mover to dump the ceremonial first load of mulch at the project site — a perk of the office he’s enjoyed on multiple occasions.
In a brief news conference after the ceremony, Hogan professed to have no idea whom he would be facing after the Democratic voters choose their nominee in the June 26 primary.
“Quite frankly, it could be any of the nine,” he said.
Despite his soaring approval numbers in recent polls, Hogan said he would take part in televised debates against whoever wins.
“Sure we would — love to,” he said.
Local residents who attended the groundbreaking said they have been delighted with the governor they helped elect.
“I think everyone really likes him. They appreciate everything he’s done for Western Maryland," said Linda Ebersole of Hagerstown.
Harry Reynolds of Smithsburg said Western Marylanders appreciate the money Hogan has brought to the region. Reynolds said that while the region is GOP territory, Hogan’s appeal is far broader and runs deeper than that of the last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
“I think he appeals to both sides,” he said.
“Ehrlich didn’t seem to have the personality or whatever. This guy is just likable,” Reynolds said.
Hogan, who still refers to himself as a non-politician, once again showed off his formidable skills as a retail politician as he worked the crowd at the groundbreaking and at a blues festival a few blocks away. No request for a photo was denied, and as he left for the rally the grinning governor paused to pose with the different police contingents who provided security.
Del. Paul Corderman, a Hagerstown Republican, said he expects Hogan to do “great” in Western Maryland. “The consensus is past governors were focused more on the central part of the state,” Corderman said. “It’s been great to have a governor who’s really delivering on his pledges and commitments in Western Maryland.”
Kathleen Matthews, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, criticized Hogan’s focus on O’Malley and the “golden oldies” of his 2014 campaign.
“He’s still talking about a rain tax, and Democrats are trying to figure out how to protect communities like Ellicott City from storms caused by climate change,” she said. “Democrats are looking to the future, and Hogan is just replaying his 2014 song book since he has so little to run on in 2018.”
Matthews’ predecessor, D. Bruce Poole, was one of the last elected Democrats in Washington County when he was defeated for re-election as delegate in 1998. He said the attention Hogan pays to rural parts of the state is paying off.
“The governor needs to get credit for showing up,” Poole said. “That’s as big a part in politics as it is in life.”
Poole said a good Democratic candidate could hold Hogan under 70 percent in Western Maryland by attending events in small towns and rural areas and talking about the region’s lingering economic and health problems. But he isn’t seeing the current crop of Democratic gubernatorial candidates doing it.
“They are candidates of the I-95 corridor, and they are very comfortable there,” Poole said.