Republican Larry Hogan said during his campaign for governor that he had no grand visions of turning Maryland red — that is, switching its partisan orientation from Democrats to the GOP. But his upset victory was surprisingly strong — he beat Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown by a wider margin than even his staunchest supporters might have hoped for. And it was accompanied by victories by the Republicans in numerous legislative races and the highly competitive Howard County executive race. One of Maryland's Democratic congressional incumbents is hanging on in a race that will come down to absentee ballots.
Yet it is too early to declare a red dawn in this blue state. Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot actually increased his margin of victory this year despite the Hogan wave. Democratic state Sen. Brian E. Frosh — a liberal lion in the legislature — easily won the race for attorney general. There remains not a single elected Republican in Montgomery County, the state's most populous jurisdiction and one with a large number of registered Republicans. Democrat Jan Gardner defeated tea party favorite Blaine Young to become Frederick County's first executive. Clearly there are parts of the state where a tax revolt has taken hold — eastern Baltimore County being a prime example. But that has happened before in this state without presaging a permanent political realignment.
The single most obvious factor in Mr. Brown's loss was his inability to turn out his base. He did reasonably well in his home county of Prince George's, by historical standards. He beat Mr. Hogan by 143,000 votes there, a better total than Gov. Martin O'Malley managed in his first run. But overall, he netted 120,000 fewer votes out of the so-called "Big Three" — Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore City — than Mr. O'Malley did four years ago in what was also a great year for Republicans nationally. Considering that Mr. Hogan's current margin of victory stands at under 77,000, that's a big deal. He didn't win because he turned out rural and conservative suburban voters in unprecedented numbers; he won because Mr. Brown didn't excite the Democratic base.
Consider as well the kind of race Mr. Hogan ran. He studiously avoided red-meat Republican issues, for example vowing not to seek any changes in Maryland's gun control or abortion laws or to undo liberal linchpins of the O'Malley legacy such as marriage equality and the abolition of the death penalty. He acknowledged human contributions to global warming and said he considered the recent influx of unaccompanied minors across the Southern border to be a humanitarian crisis to which the United States must respond with compassion and care. He wasn't anti-union and said he would leave alone Maryland's law increasing the minimum wage. In as much as he hammered the O'Malley administration for its record on taxes and spending, he went out of his way to present himself as a moderate on other issues. That's a far cry from the kind of campaign Republican gubernatorial nominee Ellen Sauerbrey ran in 1994, for example.
Similarly, the Republican victors in two big county executive races — Steve Schuh in Anne Arundel and Allan Kittleman in Howard — ran on relatively moderate platforms as well. Mr. Schuh is generally the more conservative of the two and promised to cut the property tax. But he said he would not seek a repeal of Anne Arundel County's stormwater management fee (aka rain tax), and one of the major elements of his platform was a vision for building more, smaller high schools as a means to improve the quality of education. He wants to increase spending on public safety, too. Mr. Kittleman is pro-gay marriage, voted to repeal the death penalty and co-sponsored legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and to bar discrimination against transgender people. Neither one of them came with promises to slash spending but instead to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.
The same is true of Mr. Hogan's fiscal promises. He didn't propose eliminating state agencies or major programs. Rather, his vow was to look for cuts that could be made without affecting state services, and in contrast to all of his opponents in the Republican primary who vowed to cut taxes first and figure out the consequences later, Mr. Hogan has made clear that he would seek to roll back recent tax and fee increases only after finding spending reductions to compensate for them. That's not exactly Grover Norquist material. In fact, it's not all that dissimilar to what Mr. Brown pledged. He, too, outlined proposals for cutting state spending and vowed no tax increases during his administration.
There were certainly cases of good Democratic candidates who got caught up in the anti-Annapolis wave. Del. John Bohanan in Southern Maryland is a good example, and so is Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. His effort to replace Sen. Norman Stone ran into a buzz saw of discontent in Dundalk, where voters were apparently sick of the three Os: the Olszewskis (including John Sr., who is retiring from the County Council), O'Malley and Obama.
Some measure of O'Malley fatigue played a role in the election. He was more popular than, say, former Gov. Parris Glendening was at the end of his term, but his testing of the waters for the 2016 presidential race made him an easy figure for Mr. Hogan to attack as out of touch with the concerns of Marylanders. For much of the election, Mr. O'Malley seemed absent, and at times, he literally was — for example campaigning for the Democratic candidate for governor in South Carolina rather than the one in Maryland.
But it's also true that Maryland voters have generally looked for a greater contrast between one governor and the next than Mr. Brown presented vis a vis Mr. O'Malley. Harry Hughes was a big change from the Marvin Mandel/Blair Lee era, and William Donald Schaefer was a very different figure than Mr. Hughes. The wonky Parris Glendening was again a big shift from the street-wise Schaefer. Mr. Brown may not have campaigned much with Mr. O'Malley, but he didn't clearly express his independence from him either. Perhaps it's a result of his military background, in which disagreeing publicly with a superior officer is unthinkable, but Mr. Brown only reluctantly provided examples of instances in which he had disagreed with the governor. Mr. Hogan ran against Mr. O'Malley as much as he did against Mr. Brown, and Mr. Brown neither fully defended nor repudiated his boss' legacy, leaving his own identity something of a muddle for voters.
All that said, Maryland voters were clearly sending a message to the powers-that-be in Annapolis. They want change, and they want checks and balances in government. They want not to be taken for granted. Even if electing Mr. Hogan doesn't represent a call for the kind of radical change of direction that Ms. Sauerbrey would have, it does clearly show a desire for a course correction in Maryland government. Leaders in the General Assembly have experience in turning a Republican governor into a one term wonder, but they should be mindful that Mr. Hogan also witnessed the downfall of the Ehrlich administration up close as appointments secretary. He may not be so easy to beat. Indeed, Mr. Hogan struck precisely the correct note in is post-election news conference this morning. "This victory was not a partisan one," he said, promising an inclusive administration and cooperation with the legislature's top Democrats.
A moderate Republican governor working fruitfully with Democrats in a blue state? It can happen and has routinely over the years in Massachusetts. This election doesn't vault Maryland into the column of competitive states for the next presidential election, but it does suggest the possibility of a future in which the state government operates with more intellectual and philosophical competition, and that could be a very good thing indeed.