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Conventions over, Maryland politicos turn eye toward November — and 2018

Maryland's Democrats & Republicans see this election as the beginning of a closer political showdown in 2018.

With the major party conventions over, Maryland Democrats and Republicans are turning their attention back home, to the next three months of a general election campaign unlike any before it.

Democratic leaders say they plan to set aside their traditional post-convention practice of exporting volunteers and resources to the neighboring battleground states of Virginia and Pennsylvania and focus instead on promoting turnout in already-blue Maryland — in part to build voter lists for the 2018 gubernatorial election.

Republicans, divided by presidential nominee Donald Trump, say they will campaign in Maryland for local candidates, but send money and volunteers to states where Trump has a better chance of beating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Leaders of both parties say that with all projections pointing to a win for Clinton in Democratic-leaning Maryland, the election in 2016 will sow the seeds for a political showdown in two years, when Democrats will attempt to take back the governor's mansion from Republican Larry Hogan, and the GOP will try to make Hogan only the second Republican governor in state history to be elected to a second term.

"I know we're probably in a rock-solid position for Hillary Clinton," said Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland GOP. "The most important election for Maryland is in 2018. Our No. 1 goal as a state party is to make sure that Larry Hogan gets re-elected because Larry Hogan's re-election would make Maryland a real two-party state."

Fresh off last week's convention, Democratic leaders in Maryland will begin implementing a plan aimed at harnessing enthusiasm for their party's first female presidential candidate, building a network that gives Democrats not just victories, but landslide wins.

The strategy is a departure from most presidential years, when Maryland's plentiful and in many cases wealthy Democrats have sent resources to states with tougher, closer congressional and presidential contests. Volunteers would board buses, drive into the heavily Democratic suburbs of Northern Virginia and southeastern Pennsylvania, and knock on doors to help the party identify voters.

Bruce Poole, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, called this election cycle a "building phase."

"We are not going to go to other states — at least not very much — this year," he said. Poole described plans for "a fundamental retooling in how the Democratic Party does business" in Maryland, done with an eye toward taking on the broadly popular Hogan.

In a state with more than twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, Democrats were stunned in 2014 to watch their nominee, then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, first slowly lose ground in the polls to Hogan and then lose the election by 4 percentage points.

"It was really like watching a large ocean liner out at sea, drifting off into what looked like was going to be a crash ... but it couldn't get corrected," Poole said. "We've got to change that, and that's the goal."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives, endorsed the plan to keep volunteers closer to home this election cycle.

"I don't think we need to be an export state," he said. "We need to make sure that we're organized very well here in Maryland. 2016 is an opportunity for us to get our party really focused, assigned, operational for 2016 and then 2018."

The first event planned in that effort is a rally in Silver Spring on Sunday that will focus on Rep. Chris Van Hollen's campaign for Maryland's open Senate seat.

One reason Brown lost in 2014 was that turnout was low in the state's Democratic strongholds, including Baltimore City and Montgomery County. So party officials plan this year to identify voters who might be interested in presidential politics and then work hard to ensure that they turn out again in the gubernatorial election, which in Maryland is held in nonpresidential election years, when they might not be paying as close attention.

Maryland Republicans, meanwhile, expect to be asked to send money and volunteers elsewhere. During the 2012 cycle, officials said, they spent $4.2 million on out-of-state contests.

Republican Party Chairwoman Diana Waterman said the Trump campaign does not appear to have written off Maryland, but Republican volunteers will answer the call if asked to go elsewhere.

"They're not treating Maryland as a foregone conclusion," she said. "They're looking at a 50-state campaign, is my impression."

Maryland Republicans have been doing better in state races — most notably for the governor's mansion — in recent years. But Maryland Democrats still dominate in presidential elections. The state has not gone for a Republican presidential candidate since George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988.

President Barack Obama won 62 percent of the vote in Maryland in 2012. Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said, "It's going to be another boring presidential election" in the state.

She noted that the state has the fifth-largest percentage of African-American voters, and that Trump is polling in single digits with that group. She predicted that Marylanders would see few of the presidential campaign ads that will fill TV screens in more hotly contested states.

Clinton and Trump have been invited to attend a meeting of the National Urban League in Baltimore next week but have not said whether they will attend.

Nonetheless, Republicans plan to fight for the Senate seat left open by the retirement of Democratic stalwart Barbara A. Mikulski. But they recognize the uphill battle that Del. Kathy Szeliga, the Republican minority whip, would face against Van Hollen if Democrats turn out and frustrated Republicans say home.

"If Donald Trump gets clobbered in Maryland, it'll be very hard for us to win that seat," Cluster said. "If he's competitive, then we have a shot."

Republicans also hope to make inroads in the 6th Congressional District, which includes conservative Western Maryland. Republicans came within about 2,800 votes of toppling incumbent Rep. John Delaney in 2014. This time, Delaney faces a well-financed GOP candidate, Amie Hoeber.

Both parties face something of an enthusiasm gap at the top of their tickets in Maryland, where many longtime volunteers willing to vote for their party's presidential nominee say they are less willing to devote their time to the campaign.

Maryland Democrats say they are largely united despite passionate support during the primary campaign for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a prominent Sanders supporter, said Democratic activists see the bigger picture and the emphasis on 2018 will help.

"A lot of people are realizing that we can't let what happened two years ago happen again," the Prince George's County Democrat said. The emphasis on "building up a campaign apparatus, building up the Democratic votes, is because of the concern about 2018."

Several prominent Republicans, including Hogan, have shunned Trump, and some otherwise dedicated Republican activists say they are unwilling to campaign for the controversial businessman. But Maryland Republican leaders expect Trump-inspired volunteers to take their place.

That was certainly on display at the GOP convention in Cleveland, where many delegates were engaging in politics for the first time.

Michael Smigiel, a party activist and former state delegate from the Eastern Shore, views the presidential race as one between a "crook and a kook." He plans to hold his nose and vote for Trump, but he won't campaign for him.

"I can't in good conscience come out and tell people what to do," he said.

In 2012, Josh Wolf, an aide to then-Harford County Executive David R. Craig and now a lobbyist, went door to door in Pennsylvania for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. This year he will "absolutely not" return for Trump.

"I will be spending all my political free time getting Governor Hogan re-elected in 2018," Wolf said.

Frederick County Councilman Billy Shreve, a staunchly conservative Republican and Trump supporter, dismisses reports of discord.

"Mostly every Republican we talk to is in favor of Trump," he said. "It's a matter of how vocal they want to be about it if they're in a Democratic district."

Cluster said Trump has brought many Maryland Republicans who never participated in elections into the process.

"You'll find some core volunteers who will sit this one out," he said. "But I think we'll replace them with someone new to politics who is happy to volunteer."

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