Maryland politics: A 2018 preview

As the first midterm elections of the Trump era approach, voters are fired up nationwide, and that could have big implications in Maryland. Although the state isn’t expected to be a key battleground in the fights for control of the House or Senate, it’s a reasonable bet that turnout will be high, and it’s hard to predict what impact that will have on the races for governor, the General Assembly and local offices. Here are some key things to watch as 2018 unfolds.

Can Hogan repeat?

The last Republican to be re-elected Maryland governor was Theodore McKeldin in 1954, but Gov. Larry Hogan is in a better position than his few predecessors in that situation. He maintains extremely high job approval ratings and has in most instances managed to keep a useful arms-length remove from President Donald Trump, despite the best efforts of his opponents to link the two Republicans. So far, it appears no serious candiate will challenge him in the primary, which means he won’t have to tack to the right at any point in the election. Still, he polls at below 50 percent when voters are asked if they would support him or a generic Democrat, and he has to be looking warily at the blue wave in Virginia’s off-year election. Mr. Hogan ran a great campaign last time, but make no mistake, he benefited from sub-par Democratic turnout. That’s not likely to be the case this time.

Here are the key questions for Mr. Hogan in the months ahead. Can he stay as disciplined in the campaign as he did four years ago and avoid getting pulled into debates about the president or issues outside his core economic message? Will General Assembly Democrats manage to force him to take stands he doesn’t want to on wedge issues like guns or Obamacare? And just how staggering will his fund-raising totals be? Mr. Hogan won last time on a publicly financed campaign. This time, he should be loaded with campaign cash.

Who will challenge him?

Democrats have a diverse field of potential challengers to Governor Hogan, ranging from unknowns to moderately-knowns. Two early stand-outs are Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, who has the most name recognition and the best poll numbers against Governor Hogan, and former NAACP head Ben Jealous, who is seeking to mobilize the state’s supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, for whom he was a key campaign surrogate in 2016. Mr. Jealous has racked up some impressive organized labor endorsements, and Mr. Baker has two great gets — Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Attorney General Brian Frosh.

But this is far from a two-man race. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is the only Baltimore-area elected official in the race, and although he has taken some liberal stands on issues like police-community relations and housing segregation, he generally fits in the party’s more moderate wing. State Sen. Richard Madaleno has strong ties to the state’s progressive voters and Annapolis experience that most other candidates lack. Attorney Jim Shea has connections in the state’s business community. Entrepreneur Alec Ross has tech savvy and a strong social media campaign. Former White House and State Department official Krish Vignarajah has Obama administration ties. Consultant Maya Rockeymoore Cummings has policy chops and access to the national donor network of her husband, Rep. Elijah Cummings.

A key question in the race is whether voters are in the mood for an outsider or whether they want someone who has won an election before to take on Governor Hogan. Progressives and African Americans are likely to be the two biggest constituencies in the election. Will either group coalesce around a particular candidate, or will their votes be split, leaving open a path for a candidate to win with the support of moderates and rural Democrats? And will whoever wins the primary be able to unite the party and raise the money necessary to compete with Mr. Hogan?

What will happen in the State House?

The icing on Hogan re-election for Republicans would be to break up Democrats’ super majority in either the House of Delegates or the state Senate. The latter would require a pick-up of five seats, which is plausible given that Mr. Hogan won nine of those districts last time but possibly far-fetched given the national political mood. Here are the races to watch:

Sen. James Brochin’s decision to run for Baltimore County executive should make his conservative 42nd district a virtual Republican lock, particularly given that the GOP already has a strong candidate in the race in Del. Chris West. Democratic Sen. John Astle, who lost badly in a bid for Annapolis mayor, has been non-commital about running for re-election, and his seat has long been in Republicans sights. Sen. James DeGrange, another conservative Anne Arundel Democrat, has announced his retirement. Former delegate and gubernatorial candidate Ron George has already announced that he will run for Mr. Astle’s seat, and County Councilman John Grasso is running in Mr. DeGrange’s district. Republicans are also poised to run strong races against Sens. James Mathias of Ocean City, Ron Young of Frederick and Kathy Klausmeier in Baltimore County.

The Baltimore County battle

County Executive Kamenetz’s departure after two terms leaves a wide open race to succeed him, with competitive primaries expected in both parties.

Democrats have a choice between Senator Brochin, whose district stretches from Towson to northern Baltimore County; County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who represents the Pikesville/Owings Mills area; and former Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. of Dundalk. All three have strengths but none is an undisputed favorite. Watch for the race to be decided in the Liberty Road corridor, a vote-rich area for Democrats where none of the three starts out with a clear advantage.

The Republican primary pits Del. Pat McDonough, who was a Trumpian before that was even a thing, against former delegate and current Maryland Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer, who has the explicit backing of Gov. Larry Hogan. Baltimore County is perhaps the most crucial jurisdiction for Governor Hogan, and it would be helpful to him if he had a more moderate Republican on his ticket, hence his preference for Mr. Redmer. But who is going to turn out for a Republican primary in a midterm election? Trump voters, most likely, and that could help Delegate McDonough, who already has county-wide name recognition thanks to his years as a talk radio host. A key question here will be how much effort Governor Hogan puts into helping Mr. Redmer — and whether that makes a difference.

Can Kittleman hold Howard County?

Former state Sen. Allan Kittleman won a hard-fought race for county executive four years ago by portraying himself as a mild mannered, moderate Republican with deep ties to the community. And some disputes with the Democratic County Council notwithstanding, that’s mainly the way he has governed.

He faces a challenge from another experienced and well-known Howard County political figure, Councilman Calvin Ball. Mr. Ball will be hoping for a Democratic wave, while Mr. Kittleman will need to rely on his reputation for steady leadership at times like the Ellicott City flood — and a pile of campaign cash. This battle of nice, thoughtful guys has the potential to be the Choose Civility election, a poignant counter-note to our poisonous national politics.

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