To win elected office, every candidate must have at least one political superpower. Faster than opposition canvassing! More powerful than outside money! Able to leap negative press with a single bound! For a Republican governor running for re-election in a blue state, arguably the most valuable political superpower is the ability to build a bipartisan voter coalition.
It’s no easy feat. You must develop a message that excites the base, turns the independent vote in your favor, and — here’s the hard part — convinces members of the opposition party to choose you over their own party’s candidate.
During the last gubernatorial election cycle, Republican Larry Hogan built the now-eponymous “Hogan coalition” — a winning mix of moderate Democrats, independents and Republican voters — on concentrated economic messaging.
That messaging was bolstered by Democratic candidate Lt. Governor Anthony Brown’s difficulties countering the narrative that he and former Gov. Martin O’Malley “never met a tax they didn't like or at least one they didn't hike” in a way that satisfied enough voters outside of the most ardent party loyalists. Not only that, but Governor O’Malley’s progressive victories on immigration, gun control, capital punishment and gay marriage unintentionally mitigated many issues that normally deter Democratic voters from Republican candidates.
Most certainly in 2014, the political climate in Maryland was just right for Mr. Hogan’s candidacy. However, the key to his victory then — and in 2018 — is his ability to communicate an important and often underappreciated political truth: Democrats like economic development and tax relief, too.
To be sure, his affable, down-to-earth persona makes it easy for voters to identify with Mr. Hogan even if they don’t identify with the Republican Party. Along with the positive economic conditions in Maryland, it’s the non-partisan, good guy public image that has helped to sustain his popularity as governor. To this point, Maryland Democratic Party politicos argue that he is actually a conservative who is uninterested in helping public schools and hourly workers or working across party lines rather than a super everyman.
Which brings us to the summer campaigning from the Democratic gubernatorial candidates. It’s clear that weakening the governor’s approval rating is a collective goal and shared strategy. A “resistance league” of sorts has formed — albeit one still formally missing even a single wonder woman (much less the preferred wonder women) — all working to tie Governor Hogan to President Donald Trump. And, make no mistake, with many candidates to split up the vote, being the hero of the progressive resistance could result in a primary victory.
Yet resistance as a winning general election strategy is predicated on all Democrats linking Governor Hogan and his policies to President Trump and his agenda with similar vehemence as progressives already do. This continues to be a hard sell to the moderates who approve of Mr. Hogan’s economic policies and like his leadership, thus they don’t see him as a member of President Trump’s legion of doom. And if Governor Hogan continues to distance himself from the president, the potential of these voters ever making a substantive Trump connection will be less “maybe not yet” and more “maybe not ever.”
Of course, some on the political left argue that it ultimately doesn’t matter whether mainstream Democrats are convinced that Mr. Hogan is akin to a Trumpian villain. They believe that a resistance message coupled with a staunchly progressive platform will inspire enough turnout among like-minded voters to win a primary and a general election.
They could be right, but there is another way for a Democrat to prevail. Given the demographics of the state, the Democratic nominee won’t need a bipartisan coalition to win unlike Mr. Hogan — they just need Democrats to not vote for the Republican candidate. Thus, the greatest electoral superpower for the eventual nominee isn’t the resistance, it’s an ideologically diverse, economic policy-centered agenda. Though in order for the Democratic candidate to wield this power during the general election, moderate voters must be equally as vocal and active as their progressive counterparts during the Democratic primary.
Undeniably, the viability of the Hogan coalition will be determined by Mr. Hogan’s own ability to once again win over enough Democratic voters on Election Day. Foremost, it means demonstrating that his economic policies have been positive for the state, but it also means treading carefully on his paid sick leave and green jobs vetoes, showing a commitment to Baltimore City and progress on the opioid public health crisis. And, just to be on the safe side, staying as far from President Trump as possible.
Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts the Goucher Poll. She is also an associate professor of political science. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mileahkromer.