Political analysts say Maryland’s governorship in 2018 might come down to winning Baltimore County — a concept that seems to be embraced by both Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic nominee Ben Jealous.
Both have been focusing on the sprawling suburban county, which despite a heavy voter registration margin of Democrats over Republicans went big for Hogan in 2014. He picked up more voters than anywhere else in the state in the last election en route to victory.
Winning Baltimore County is again a key goal in 2018.
“The road to the governorship goes through Baltimore County,” said John Dedie, who teaches political science at the Community College of Baltimore County.
The county is rich with voters — more than half a million, behind only Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. But unlike those Washington suburbs, Baltimore County has a mix of Republicans, as well as persuadable Democrats and independents who have been key to Republican victories.
It was no surprise, then, that the two men held dueling news conferences this past week in Towson, trying to draw attention to the support they are receiving within the county.
Hogan’s news conference on Wednesday touted the support of state Sen. Jim Brochin, the latest and highest-profile Democrat to endorse the GOP governor’s re-election bid. Brochin said he supports Hogan because he works with members of both parties, and described the governor as fair, decent, honest and deserving of four more years in office.
“Choose person over party, don’t be a sheep, OK?” Brochin said. “Choose the person who has the best public policy and this is the person who has led and brought Maryland together, all sides.”
Brochin — who in June lost the Democratic primary for Baltimore County executive by just 17 votes — is well-known in the county with a reputation as an independent thinker.
During the county executive primary, his face was all over TV commercials and campaign mailers, and he appeared at dozens of debates, forums and community meetings. Brochin said he’ll help spread the governor’s campaign message in the county.
At the event, Hogan acknowledged the importance of Baltimore County in his re-election bid.
“It’s one of the largest counties. It’s been a county that’s been in play, back and forth — Republicans have won, Democrats have won. We were lucky enough to win Baltimore County with a very large margin in the last election, and I think it helped propel us and put us over the top,” Hogan said.
On the same day Jealous was also in Towson, gathering with several Democrats who support him for a news conference at a local park. Among those attending was U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, who said Jealous will take the state “to the next level.”
The event was somewhat overshadowed by Jealous uttering the F-word in response to a question about whether he identifies as a socialist, as Hogan and the Republican Governors Association has been portraying him. “Are you f—ing kidding me?” he said in response to the question from Washington Post reporter Erin Cox. He later apologized for using “inappropriate language.”
In other comments, Jealous said he thinks voters in Baltimore County will support him because they care about investing in public schools and lowering health care costs.
“We will compete for every vote in this county,” he said. “We, frankly, started off in a much better place than the party did four years ago. So we’re confident and we’re going to keep building on our strength in the county.”
Jealous needs to find a message that resonates with Baltimore County Democrats, who are more toward the political center than he is, said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College in Towson.
“If Jealous can find a message that appeals to a broad coalition of Democrats living in Baltimore County, all the better for him,” said Kromer, who is director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher.
While Jealous has lined up support from many elected Democrats in the county, not all are on board. Johnny Olszewski Jr., the Democratic nominee for county executive, has not said whether he will support Jealous.
“Johnny has been and will be focused on the race for Baltimore County executive, first of all,” said Sean Naron, a spokesman for Olszewski’s campaign.
Hogan, meanwhile, will try to siphon off Democrats and independents who might not be entirely comfortable with Jealous’ progressive message. Having support from someone like Brochin helps “normalize” the idea of Democrats voting for Hogan, Kromer said.
“Hogan is going to continue to push the message that it’s OK for Democrats to vote for him, that he’s different from Republicans nationally,” she said.
The only other Republican to win the governorship in recent decades, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., also relied on support in Baltimore County to win in 2002. When Ehrlich lost in 2006, he won Baltimore County by a narrow margin. When Ehrlich ran again in 2010, he lost both the county and the state.
“If he can’t carry the county, he can’t win,” Kromer said of Hogan.
Al Mendelsohn, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee, said Hogan has smartly focused on the county in his official role as governor as well as in his campaign. The governor remains popular in the county, he said.
“Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get a request to bring the governor into the county for any of our candidates,” Mendelsohn said. “Everybody knows that the governor’s reputation as not only an administrator, but as a real gentleman — someone who wouldn’t swear at reporters — will be beneficial.”
Mendelsohn said he has to remind Republican activists that Jealous is a threat to Hogan’s re-election chances.
“I’m fighting complacency,” he said. “Too many people are saying we have this in the bag, but we don’t have this in the bag.”
Dedie said both candidates will need to make frequent trips to Baltimore County between now and the November election.
“You have to be seen. You have to be there,” he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.