Gov. Larry Hogan just had what was probably his best legislative session, working with Democrats to solve big problems on issues like health care and bolstering his pro-business image with a massive effort to woo Amazon's second headquarters to the state. His approval rating ticked up eight points in the latest Goucher Poll to an impressive 69 percent. Yet on head-to-head matchups with the seven major Democrats looking to block his path to re-election, he still hovers around 45 percent support.
Each of those seven Democrats, meanwhile, has been traversing the state, appearing at forums, festivals, and house parties in an effort to convince voters that Mr. Hogan should be forcibly retired this fall and that he or she is the one to do it. But the poll shows little difference between the top contenders and the bottom ones in hypothetical contests with Mr. Hogan. The best any of them do is 31 percent; the worst is 25 percent. The good news for them: Any of the seven theoretically has a shot. The bad news: None of them is catching fire.
What all this means is that Mr. Hogan can't just coast to victory. No matter how popular he is, he isn't cracking 50 percent. He needs to do something more. Nor can the Democrats assume that a big wave of anti-Trump voters will get the job done. The Goucher Poll's methodology is sensitive to non-traditional voters entering the electorate (random digit dialing with a likely voter screen on the back end, for those playing at home), and poll maestra Mileah Kromer says she's not yet detecting a big change in the electorate. The Democrats need to do something more, too.
Fortunately, this survey offers some hints as to what that might be.
For Mr. Hogan, the most obvious path is to repeat the economic focus that got him to Annapolis in the first place. A plurality of voters believes Maryland's economy is better than it was four years ago, and those voters are overwhelmingly pro-Hogan. He needs to find a way to turn that into a majority. Perhaps Amazon will announce it's coming to Montgomery County, and Mr. Hogan will be able to rest his case. But the safer play will be to announce a platform focused on helping struggling working families. Talk of improving the business climate and his record on tax incentives for manufacturers and others isn't enough; he needs to speak to the anxieties caused by an economy that has left many behind. Mr. Hogan's embrace of paid sick leave (if not legislative Democrats' mechanism for providing it) as well as his efforts to protect the Affordable Care Act show good instincts in that direction. Policies to help families with child care, transportation and worker re-training, for example, could build on his record.
The biggest opportunities for Democrats, the poll suggests, are in the areas of the environment and education. The latter comes with a tailor-made platform for bold policy initiatives in the form of the report of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, better known as the Kirwan Commission. It confronts the reality that while Maryland has many excellent schools, its overall performance is middling by national and international standards. The report proposes detailed remedies for expanding early childhood education, boosting the quality and diversity of teachers, establishing clearer pathways to college and careers, supporting at-risk students and improving governance and accountability. Its ideas are neither necessarily liberal nor conservative, and it will take some political courage to campaign on a plan to implement them — and pay for them.
Mr. Hogan remains in a historically strong position — by this point in 2006, both Democrats running against Maryland's last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., were leading him in the polls, with then-Gov. Martin O'Malley nearly at 50 percent. Attempts to tie Mr. Hogan to the profoundly unpopular President Donald Trump (25 percent approval, 70 percent disapproval in Maryland; SAD!) have not succeeded. Nor have Mr. Hogan's moves toward the political center (or even left) this year hurt him with his base, which remains strongly supportive. But with just over six months to go until the election, he hasn't sealed the deal.
By a two-to-one margin, poll respondents said government should be doing more to solve people's problems, and three-quarters said they want their leaders to compromise to get things done. The candidate who can find the right mix of ideas to convince voters that he or she will best do those two things will be the winner. This race could go either way. Someone needs to go out and take it.