In politics, a year of change for Maryland, nation

What will Democratic gains in Md. in 2016 mean for 2018?

In a year of political upheaval, when conventional wisdom was tossed aside, Maryland voters did exactly what the polls and prognosticators predicted months before the election: They reaffirmed the state's position as one of the most Democratic in the nation.

As white, working-class voters buoyed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to victories in neighboring Pennsylvania and other battlegrounds, Marylanders handed rival Hillary Clinton one of her largest margins — nearly 60 percent voted for her — and backed a Democrat to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

While the results were not surprising, they are being interpreted differently as the state looks toward 2018, when popular Gov. Larry Hogan will either face a low-turnout electorate willing to give a centrist Republican another shot or the kind of blue wall that dominates during presidential years, shutting out the GOP.

Given Hogan's upset victory in 2014, Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County was cautious when asked if his party could replicate its past successes in 2018.

"In a blue state, when a Republican governor wins, we have to take notice of that and realize that people were sending a message," said Ruppersberger, who captured nearly 62 percent of the vote against a GOP challenger who used Trump's campaign as a template. "More and more people aren't as concerned about party."

Just more than 1.6 million Marylanders voted for Clinton; about 924,000 backed Trump. The Democratic candidate carried seven counties, and managed to flip Anne Arundel — one of only a handful in the country that went for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 but switched to Clinton this year.

State Republicans warned against using results from a presidential election year to predict the outcome of the off-year contest in 2018. Poll after poll has indicated Hogan remains among the most popular governors in the nation, and he will have some advantages heading into his re-election.

While Democrats can celebrate turning Anne Arundel County blue in the presidential contest, it was Republican state Del. Kathy Szeliga who carried the county in the race for Maryland's open seat in the U.S. Senate.

"Presidential election years are always tough for Maryland Republicans," said Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. "The 2018 electorate will be a lot different, and they will be focusing on the job Governor Hogan has done and will vote accordingly."

Hogan vs. Trump

One dynamic almost certain to bleed over from one election to the next is Hogan's decision to publicly oppose Trump. He was one of only a handful of Republican governors who said he would not vote for the GOP nominee. On Election Day, he wrote in the name of his father, former Rep. Lawrence Hogan.

Republicans have grumbled quietly about the distance Hogan has kept from the party since taking office, and some suggested ardent Trump supporters in Maryland could try to punish him for abandoning the president-elect.

But only one elected GOP official in Maryland has been willing to make those arguments openly — Del. Pat McDonough of Baltimore County, who was unsuccessful this year in his challenge of Ruppersberger — an indication that others see the political wisdom of an incumbent governor asserting his independence in state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by better than 2-to-1.

Even in Baltimore, a Democratic stronghold, Hogan's favorability has risen to 70 percent in some polls — a number that clearly has caught Democrats by surprise.

In contrast, 76 percent of voters surveyed by Goucher College in September held an unfavorable view of Trump.

"A Trump victory or a Trump loss, it was still smart," said Goucher political scientist Mileah Kromer. "Trump's unpopularity ratings among Maryland Democrats and Maryland independents was off the charts."

Carson, O'Malley struggle

Trump's message didn't sell in Maryland, but it managed to drown out two candidates with deep ties to the state who mounted their own campaigns this year. Former Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, and Republican Ben Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, were never able to gain much traction.

O'Malley, who ran as a liberal despite a generally centrist record during two terms in Annapolis, campaigned in the shadow of both Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He was widely credited by party faithful for overseeing an issues-based campaign focused on climate change and Wall Street regulations, but he struggled to gain attention as Trump sucked up cable television airtime.

He dropped out on the night of the Iowa caucuses after barely registering in a state where he had invested considerable time.

Carson, who briefly outpolled Trump in Iowa and nationwide, developed a significant following among evangelicals and other conservatives. And he raised more than $65 million — a stunning figure for a candidate who had never before sought public office and was not well known nationally. The former Baltimore County man suspended his campaign in March following disappointing results in early states and a fifth-place finish on Super Tuesday.

He became an early, but sometimes unpredictable, surrogate for Trump — once suggesting the Republican businessman might pick a Democrat to be his running mate.

In December, Trump tapped Carson as his choice to lead the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Presidential primary in Maryland

Maryland's presidential candidates were out of the running, but the state nevertheless became a draw for the remaining contenders as the April 26 primary drew near.

Partly because the state's primary delegates are bound to support winning candidates — unlike in Pennsylvania, which voted on the same day — Maryland drew two visits from Trump and several from Ohio Gov. John Kasich. It was an unusual level of engagement for a state whose primary is late in the calendar, and it highlighted how both party's nomination fights carried on longer than in the past.

"If I win, it will have a lot to do with right here," Trump told an enthusiastic crowd in Dorchester County in late April at one of his rallies. "This is a movement going on, folks."

On the Democratic side, Clinton visited Maryland only once for a public event, and Sanders held a rally at the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore days before the primary election.

Clinton was expected to benefit from the state's large number of African-American voters and had held a large lead in most polls.

"I particularly want to pay attention to our cities, like Baltimore," Clinton told about 1,500 supporters near South Baltimore on April 10. "I will focus particularly on communities, neighborhoods, regions that have been passed by."

Despite speculation that a centrist candidate like Kasich could perform well in Maryland, Trump carried each of the state's congressional districts en route to capturing just over 54 percent of the statewide GOP vote. Clinton won 62.5 percent the vote, roundly defeating Sanders.

A new senator

Though voters were focused on the presidential contest, it was the race for Mikulski's seat that drew the most national attention to Maryland — particularly during the Democratic primary. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County faced Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County in a contest that in some ways reflected the split among Democrats laid bare by the Clinton-Sanders race.

Edwards tried to cast Van Hollen as too centrist and too willing to cut deals with Republicans. She pointed to her own life story as a single mother, and the historic significance of Maryland electing an African-American to the Senate for the first time. Van Hollen was aided when the White House took the rare step of intervening in the primary, criticizing an anti-Van Hollen television ad paid for by a super PAC supporting Edwards.

In the end, Democrats backed Van Hollen by a 14-point margin.

The general election put the Republican Szeliga of Baltimore County in front of a statewide audience for the first time. Though she struggled to keep up with fundraising, and faced the headwinds caused by Trump's unpopularity in Maryland, she ran an aggressive and disciplined campaign that has Republicans around the state watching for her next move.

Before Van Hollen has even taken his seat in the Senate, he has been assigned a spot on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and will lead the effort to elect Democrats to the Senate in 2018.

"The turbo combination of having Van Hollen on Appropriations and [Sen. Ben] Cardin on the Finance Committee is really important," Mikulski said in an interview this month. "There is so much to be done."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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