Jealous didn't so much lose Md. gubernatorial race as Hogan won it

Now that Republican Larry Hogan has bested Democratic challenger Ben Jealous to win a second term as governor of Maryland — a wholly expected outcome, by the way — the blame game and airing of electoral grievances on the losing side can officially begin.

Critics will argue that Mr. Jealous was a flawed candidate with poor campaign messaging, lackluster fundraising and an inability to unify the party or reach voters outside of a narrow progressive base. His supporters will blame the halfhearted endorsements, little to no support from key elected officials and more moderate Democratic voters, who turned their backs on their nominee.

But to focus on the shortcomings of Democrats distorts the political reality. Mr. Jealous didn’t lose this race nearly as much as Mr. Hogan won it.

For starters, Mr. Hogan had a sophisticated understanding of what makes the Maryland voter tick. Throughout his first term and reelection efforts, the Hogan campaign regularly polled voters on a variety of policy and political issues. Critics might contend that “leading by the polls” is no way to govern, but there is undeniable political value in knowing what the public wants from its government. Large swaths of Mr. Jealous’ platform were popular, but Mr. Hogan knew how to effectively reach voters on the issues they care about the most.

Mr. Hogan had better campaign fundamentals. He built a massive campaign war chest, which enabled his campaign to dominate the airwaves with constant, targeted, expertly crafted campaign advertisements. Campaign funds also paid for talented staffers who, like the governor, were pugnacious but highly disciplined. No public statement or attack was left unanswered, and campaign messaging, debate schedules and events were perfectly orchestrated. Put simply, the Jealous campaign was outmaneuvered at every turn.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Hogan essentially weaponized his gregarious personality and advanced skills in retail politics. He shook hands and backslapped his way through endless fairs, festivals and community events. The only voters who didn’t get gubernatorial selfies were the ones who didn’t ask. And while frustrated Democrats contest that his everyman persona is insincere, it’s clear that he alone controls his public image.

Mr. Hogan was ultimately a better ideological fit for the state. Mr. Jealous, to his credit, stood fast to the policy beliefs that won him the Democratic nomination. His aspirational platform reflected a progressive vision of what he believed Maryland ought to — or could — be. But Mr. Hogan’s moderate, incremental approach better reflected where Maryland voters actually were.

And the attempts to question the authenticity of Mr. Hogan’s ideology worked only to bolster his centrist credentials. The incessant and belabored comparisons of Mr. Hogan to President Donald Trump allowed the governor to deftly highlight differences in style and substance. Complaints that Mr. Hogan had co-opted the Democrats’ policy agenda only provided him with evidence of a willingness to work across the partisan aisle.

Finally, Mr. Hogan won because incumbents typically do, particularly when there is widespread satisfaction with the direction of the state. Thus, criticism of Mr. Jealous should be tempered by the reality that unseating a popular incumbent is a difficult task, even in the best of political climates.

By his own admission, Mr. Hogan’s aspirations for his second term are the politics and policies of his first. This means steering clear of social issues and Donald Trump and focusing on economic development, regulatory reform, tax relief and building roads and highways. He’ll also have the chance to fundamentally change the fairness and competitiveness of Maryland’s electoral districts if he is successful in making an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission a reality.

Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly will rightfully continue to challenge his priorities, particularly on education and public transportation. But now that he’s a lame duck, they can view his penchant for adopting parts of their agenda as an opportunity rather than an irritant. The only way for Mr. Hogan to change Maryland remains through bipartisan cooperation and continued moderation.

There are, of course, questions over his future political ambitions and how those aspirations might influence the politics of his second term. It’s an important political dynamic to consider. But for right now, it’s pure speculation.

As only the second Republican to win a second term as governor, Larry Hogan has earned his place in Maryland political history. Now onward to the legislative session.

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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