When we sat down a year ago to reflect on what happened in Maryland politics in 2013, we wrote that progressive politics were on the ascent — and so was the backlash to them. This year proved both observations to be true, but with the conclusion that the backlash would have the final word, for the moment anyway.
The biggest story by far of Maryland politics in 2014 was Republican Larry Hogan's improbable, gutsy run to become the state's next governor. Despite little name recognition, no experience in elective office and a shoestring campaign budget, he toppled the sitting lieutenant governor and heir apparent to Gov. Martin O'Malley, Democrat Anthony G. Brown. How did that happen? Certainly the national political environment didn't help Mr. Brown, but Marylanders have shown a willingness to buck Republican waves before, most notably in Mr. O'Malley's rout of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2010. More likely, the explanation is simply that Mr. Hogan ran an excellent campaign that was in tune with the voters' sentiments, and Mr. Brown ran a terrible one that wasn't. Even in Maryland, that matters.
Mr. Hogan was disciplined and focused on pocketbook issues and an argument that an unchecked Democratic monopoly on power in Annapolis had taken the state off track. It proved extremely persuasive in areas like eastern Baltimore County, a once rock-solid Democratic stronghold that gave a clean sweep to Republicans in 2014. Mr. Hogan clearly converted large numbers of conservative Democratic voters to the Republican cause, but the phenomenon was not limited to blue-collar Reagan Democrats. That he also won Howard County — despite that county's increasingly liberal leanings and the presence of the popular county executive, Ken Ulman, on Mr. Brown's ticket — suggests that Mr. Hogan was able to capitalize broadly on voter dissatisfaction with the status quo.
He did that by sticking to fiscal issues and avoiding social ones, even during the Republican primary when that strategy carried real risks for him. But he also ran a tactically superior campaign. His most memorable campaign ads cast him as a humble, pragmatic businessman who was running out of a genuine concern for his state. The best of these starred his daughter, Jaymi, who defended her father against accusations from the Brown camp that he would roll back Maryland's laws on abortion and access to contraception. He then repeated the motif to great effect in the final days of the campaign, releasing a series of ads in which women spoke directly to the camera to explain why they were voting for him. They effectively gave wavering Democrats permission to vote for Mr. Hogan.
Meanwhile, Mr. Brown gave Democrats little reason to vote for him. He neither mounted a vigorous defense of the O'Malley record, particularly on taxes, nor established a clear new direction for himself. He ran some positive, biographical ads during the Democratic primary, but for most of the general election season, his ads were overwhelmingly negative.
An old (and self-serving) adage of politics is that voters complain about negative ads, but they work. Not this time. The Brown campaign's strategy appeared to owe a debt to President Barack Obama's largely successful effort in 2012 to define Republican nominee Mitt Romney in voters' minds before Mr. Romney had the chance to do it himself. But to be particularly effective, negative ads need to play on a pre-existing concern voters have about a candidate — as in the case of the assault on Mr. Romney as a heartless corporate raider. Ads attacking Mr. Hogan as an enemy of women and a rabid opponent of gun control didn't connect — partly because voters had few preconceptions about him to begin with, and partly because those issues were so far from what Mr. Hogan was talking about in his campaign. Rather than disqualifying Mr. Hogan in the minds of Democratic voters, the ads reflected poorly on Mr. Brown, particularly given widespread media fact-checking that judged them exaggerated or outright untrue.
But something else happened in 2014 that undercut Mr. Brown's campaign in a way few expected. The decorated Army veteran and sitting lieutenant governor paled in many voters' eyes next to a relatively inexperienced and unknown state delegate, Heather Mizeur. While Mr. Brown was racking up endorsements from virtually every corner of Maryland's Democratic hierarchy, Ms. Mizeur's unapologetically progressive, issue-oriented campaign was electrifying an increasingly significant segment of the electorate who are motivated by specific causes, not party affiliation. She was as detailed as she was passionate in the expression of her ideas, and she tapped into a liberal dissatisfaction with the Democratic establishment that is generally suppressed but is no less fervent than the conservative one. (Actually, a surprising number of conservative voters said they were attracted to her candidacy as well, for the simple fact that she actually appeared to believe what she was saying.) She came in third in the primary, but there is reason to believe many of her supporters did not fall back in line with the Democrats when the general election came around.
Where does 2014 leave us? We have an incoming Republican governor who has pledged to restrain state spending, cut taxes and improve the business climate but who did not promise a broader conservative revolution in the way Ellen Saurbrey did, for example, 20 years before. He also comes in as a trio of new Republican county executives in Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties give the GOP the chance to develop new generations of leaders in a way it largely did not during the Ehrlich administration. Meanwhile, though, the trend toward a more progressive legislature appears only to have accelerated. Democrats lost seats in both the House of Delegates and state Senate, but it was conservative Democrats, not liberals, who lost. As a result, the majorities in both chambers can be expected to shift to the left. Does that mean conflict is ahead, or will a Republican administration and Democratic legislature find a way to work together? We'll let you know next year.