Md. gubernatorial election will offer glimpse into country's future

Gov. Larry Hogan is popular, but so was former Gov. Bob Ehrlich when he lost his bid for reelection. So goes the favorite anecdote of voters certain to have previously lived our current gubernatorial contest. But are Marylanders really experiencing a case of electoral déjà vu?

To start, it’s true that Maryland’s last Republican governor was popular in defeat. His job approval ratings averaged in the low- to mid-50s in 2006, the year he lost his reelection bid. And much like Mr. Hogan does today, Mr. Ehrlich faced a sustained gap between those ratings and voter support for his reelection.

There are the parallels in the national political climate, too. President George W. Bush was as unpopular with Marylanders then as President Donald J. Trump is now. And the much-prophesied “blue wave” hit in 2006 with the Democrats picking up seats in the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives and several governorships — most relevantly, of course, in Maryland.

From here, however, the current presence of a past life experience is muddled by the details.

With approval ratings hitting the 70s, Mr. Hogan is significantly more popular than Mr. Ehrlich was in the year before his reelection bid. He’s also less divisive — particularly to rank-and-file Democrats — with disapproval ratings averaging in the upper-teens. Mr. Ehrlich’s disapproval rating, by contrast, averaged in the mid-30s.

While Mr. Ehrlich was bested or tied in public polling with his Democratic opponent throughout what would have been his reelection year, Mr. Hogan has led all his potential Democratic challengers — including the current nominee — by double-digits thus far this cycle.

Further, Mr. Ehrlich — a former Republican member of Congress and friend to the George W. Bush White House — was either unwilling or unable to separate his candidacy from the president or national Republican Party politics enough to satisfy voters. Mr. Hogan’s campaign messaging shows no intentions of carrying the burden of an unpopular president or national Republican policies for the sake of shared party affiliation.

Those convinced we are reliving the past should also consider the Democratic side of memory lane.

Perhaps two terms as governor and a short-lived presidential bid have dulled the memory that Martin O’Malley was a political force 12 years ago. He was the youthful mayor of Maryland’s largest city and the charismatic candidate of a well-funded and well-organized campaign. Most importantly, he had favorable statewide name recognition before his first statewide Democratic primary even began.

Ben Jealous, the current Democratic nominee, won a tough primary race by defining a clear platform, utilizing high profile endorsements, leveraging outside money and inspiring a formidable union-driven ground game. He has a compelling personal narrative and a staunchly progressive agenda distinct from his Republican opponent. Still, it’s hard to argue that he is in the same advantageous political position now as Mr. O’Malley was then.

Yet, even if the first O’Malley-Ehrlich race is a poor allegory, that doesn’t indicate certain victory for Mr. Hogan. No amount of lessons learned or distance from Mr. Trump changes the demographics of Maryland, the volatility and divisiveness of our national political environment or the policy preferences of the Democratic voters he needs to win. This race isn’t a 2014 throwback, either.

Maryland’s gubernatorial election is, however, a race with considerable future implications.

A Jealous victory in November makes evident that an unapologetic progressive can both win a competitive primary and best a skilled general election opponent in a statewide race. A victory won by turning out new “unlikely” voters and convincing moderate Democrats and independents to support a progressive platform validates a framework that the Democratic Party establishment has yet to fully embrace.

But this isn’t just about the Democrats.

If Mr. Hogan wins reelection, particularly in the midst of a blue wave, he demonstrates to the Republican Party that his politics are a viable alternative to Trump-style populism. A platform, message and style that both satisfies the base and appeals to a broader coalition of voters is perhaps what Republicans need lest they risk conceding the next generation of voters to the Democratic Party.

So, shake that feeling that we’ve been here before. This election won’t be a rehashing of the past — but it will be a glimpse into the future.

Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts the Goucher Poll. She is also an associate professor of political science. Her email is mileah.kromer@goucher.edu; Twitter: @mileahkromer.

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