Hogan, GOP take aim at Democratic dominance of Maryland legislature

Maryland Republicans are preparing to mount an all-out assault on the Democratic super-majorities in the General Assembly in 2018, hopeful that the popularity of Gov. Larry Hogan will outweigh whatever drag President Donald J. Trump could have on their fortunes in this blue state.

Hogan, who remained largely aloof from the presidential and U.S. House races last year, is now leading the effort. He's working to break up the Democrats' veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate to help advance his agenda in Annapolis and strengthen the Republican position before the state redraws its congressional and legislative district lines in 2021.

The approach was on display Thursday, when the governor visited northeastern Baltimore County to promote Del. Christian Miele's challenge to Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, a four-term Democrat.

At a gathering of several hundred enthusiastic Republicans at the Columbus Gardens meeting venue in Perry Hall, Hogan described Klausmeier as "a nice lady," but noted that he won the district by a larger margin than she did.

"It's time to get some fresh blood in there," he said.

Miele, 36, said he's happy to be a part of the effort.

"There's definitely a path to achieve what I would call more balance in government," he said.

Democrats hold 33 of the 47 seats in the state Senate and 91 of the 141 seats in the House. That's enough to override any gubernatorial veto on their own — something they've done 10 times since Hogan took office in 2015, giving released felons the right to vote, reducing possession of marijuana paraphernalia to a civil offense and requiring utility companies to use more renewable energy.

To take that power from Democrats, Republicans need to gain five seats in the Senate or seven in the House. If they can gain those five Senate seats, Republicans will also have enough votes to mount filibusters against legislation they dislike.

Reaching their goals would produce a seismic shift in Maryland's political landscape. While Republicans wouldn't be able to pass legislation without Democratic help, they could prevent Democratic initiatives from becoming law. Hogan, running himself for a second term, would become a political powerhouse. The GOP would gain clout on everything from the budget to redistricting.

At Columbus Gardens Tuesday, Hogan mingled with the crowd and posed for dozens of pictures. The governor said the event was the first of its kind he has done this year, but he expects to do many more.

Hogan lavished praise on Miele.

"This guy's done a great job in the House and I think he has a great chance of becoming a senator," he said. "If we are successful, we will have enough votes in the state Senate to end the practice of gerrymandering once and for all."

Republicans have tried this before. In 2006, Republicans under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. went into the election confident he could march to a second term and win five Senate and 14 House seats. Instead, Democrat Martin O'Malley beat Ehrlich, and Democrats gained legislative seats.

Republicans are pinning their hopes on the nine Senate districts held by Democrats in which Hogan out-polled Democratic opponent Anthony G. Brown in 2014. Maryland GOP Chairman Dirk Haire also counts 17 Democratic delegates in districts Hogan won. There are no Republicans in districts that were carried by Brown.

"We've got a lot of places we can play on the map, and the Democrats don't," Haire said.

The GOP could also benefit from Hogan's impressive political fundraising.

But then there's Trump.

Under normal circumstances, the party of a newly elected or re-elected president fares poorly in the midterm election that follows. When the president is unpopular, the election can turn into a wave, sweeping members of his party from office. That's what happened to Republicans in 2006 under President George W. Bush and to Democrats under President Barack Obama in both 2010 and 2014.

"If we look at past Maryland elections, we tend not to be immune to those political trends," said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College.

Trump lost Maryland by 26 percentage points in November, and is now less popular than either of his predecessors at this point in his presidency. Eberly said that's going to make it difficult for his party's candidates.

"History just tells us there is going to be blowback against Trump," Eberly said.

Polls this year show Hogan's approval ratings remain above 60 percent. Trump's national ratings, never above 50 percent, have fallen in the Gallup, Quinnipiac and other polls to the 30s.

Haire said predictions that Trump will be a drag are overblown. While Trump lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton statewide, he won many Maryland counties.

"In the majority of the Senate districts we're looking at, Trump actually won those districts," he said. "The Trump effect is realistic when you take a statewide view, but I don't think the Democrats have been successful in tying Trump to Hogan."

Pat Murray, former executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said that could change between now and November 2018. He said Hogan may have to concentrate on his own contest rather than legislative gains.

"Trump seems to be the gift that keeps on giving," he said. "There's a new scandal every week."

Murray spoke before former FBI Director James Comey testified Thursday that Trump had demanded his loyalty and pressured him to drop an investigation of his former national security adviser.

Trump on Friday declared victory.

"Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication," he tweeted.

If the president and the Republican-led Congress pass an Obamacare repeal that blows a $1 billion Medicaid hole in the state budget, Murray said, the election could become "a referendum on Trump," and bad news for Hogan and the GOP.

He said the "myth" of Hogan's ability to help other Republicans was dispelled in 2016, when Republican Senate nominee Kathy Szeliga emphasized the governor's support, but still lost to Democrat Chris Van Hollen by nearly 25 percentage points.

But privately, Democrats concede they're likely to lose some state Senate seats next year. In some districts, their candidates barely squeaked through in 2014, a year in which House Republicans achieved their most seats in the modern era.

Prime targets for Republicans include Baltimore County's 42nd District, which has remained in Democratic hands since 2002 largely because of the relentless door-knocking and independent voting of centrist Sen. Jim Brochin. Brochin is weighing a run for county executive, which would leave the seat open.

The 30th District in Anne Arundel County has been dangling just out of reach for the GOP for many years as Democratic Sen. John Astle has won a string of narrow victories.

Now Astle is running for mayor of Annapolis, and at 74 it is not certain he would seek re-election if he lost. The Republicans have one strong announced challenger in former gubernatorial candidate Ron George, and another possible contender in Del. Herb McMillan. Haire said Republicans also expect to make a run at the district's House seat held by Democratic Speaker Michael E. Busch, who filed for re-election shortly before undergoing a liver transplant this month.

Democrats seized two Senate seats by narrow margins in 2010 in what had been Republican territory by running popular former mayors. Ron Young in Frederick County's 3rd District and Jim Mathias in the Eastern Shore's 38th District are both expected to face strong challenges in 2018.

A sweep of those four would leave the Republicans one short of their goal of 19 seats. But Eberly wonders: "Where in the world is that fifth seat you would flip?"

Republicans will be hunting for that opportunity in districts such as Anne Arundel County's 32nd, held by Sen. James E. "Ed" DeGrange, and Klausmeier's 8th. But both are canny veterans from the party's moderate-to-conservative wing who won their 2014 races by margins of about 20 points.

DeGrange is likely to face a strong opponent in Anne Arundel County Council President John J. Grasso. And Republicans think they have a blue-chip candidate in Miele, who was elected to the House in 2014.

The 8th District is a longtime swing district at the House level, but its Senate seat has been dominated for more than three decades by Democrats Thomas L. Bromwell and Klausmeier.

Miele pointed out that Hogan won the 8th District with about two-thirds of the vote but predicted "a tough and competitive race." He points out that Klausmeier has voted to override some of Hogan's vetoes.

"She's sort of at odds with the district in that sense," he said. "It stands to reason" that voters would want to elect a senator who would support Hogan's policies more consistently.

Miele said he would run a race focused on issues, not personality. He said tying his race to what's happening in Washington is "not intellectually honest."

Republicans are portraying the race as a generational struggle between Miele and his 67-year-old rival. Klausmeier, a shrewd legislator with deep ties to the community, has no plans to move aside for her younger district mate.

She's coming off a strong legislative session in which she was the lead Senate sponsor of major legislation to deal with the state's heroin and opioid addiction crisis — a critical issue in Northeast Baltimore County. Hogan highlighted the bill at one of his signing ceremonies this spring.

"If you look at my record, I've been working with the governor quite often," Klausmeier said.

The incumbent said she's been knocking on doors, holding town halls and otherwise staying in touch with the voters who have sent her to Annapolis for the past 23 years.

"I never have taken anything for granted," she said. "I work very hard. I call it my weight loss program."

mdresser@baltsun.com

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