Gov. Larry Hogan has a commanding lead in the polls, but it’s always a risk for an incumbent to step on the stage with a challenger. Standing side-by-side with his Democratic opponent, Ben Jealous, will put the two on an equal plane for the hour of today’s debate, the only such encounter scheduled before November’s election. Here are five things Governor Hogan needs to do:
1. Don’t screw up. Four years ago, when Mr. Hogan was a never-before-elected real estate developer taking on the sitting lieutenant governor (and Maryland’s entire Democratic establishment with him), he needed to convince voters of a lot of things — that he was a competent leader, that he wasn’t the radical conservative his opponent made him out to be, that he was someone people could trust. Now, with consistently high approval ratings and a track record in office, his main job today is to do no harm. He doesn’t need to win this debate, just to prevent Mr. Jealous from having the kind of big moment that could change the direction of the race. If he turns in a boring, talking-point-heavy performance, that’s OK.
2. Don’t be Dr. No. Mr. Jealous is going to be emphasizing a robust platform of initiatives, many of which — like a $15 minimum wage and legalizing recreational marijuana — poll extremely well. Rather than attacking Mr. Jealous as a socialist and his ideas as extreme, Mr. Hogan should give some ground where he can, acknowledging voters’ support for those proposals while expressing legitimate concerns about rushing into them, or going as far as the Democrat would. Mr. Hogan has done well by acting as a yellow light in Annapolis, not a red one.
3. Talk up bipartisanship. The latest Goucher Poll shows that all the tacking toward the middle (or even left) that Mr. Hogan has done in the last couple of years isn’t hurting him whatsoever among Republicans. Their support remains as strong as ever, and there appears little risk that they will abandon him at the ballot box when his opponent is a Bernie Sanders-loving Democrat. Mr. Hogan can and should emphasize his work with Democrats to shore up Maryland’s Affordable Care Act exchange, his support of a ban on fracking, his work on criminal justice reform, his support for an education lockbox and so on.
4. Talk more about where Maryland is going than where it’s been. Mr. Hogan won office in 2014 by convincing voters that Maryland was on the wrong track, and he sometimes delves back into “Maryland was a hellscape before I came around” rhetoric. In an election cycle in which Democrats could be unusually energized by opposition to President Donald Trump, there’s a risk that such talk could be needlessly alienating. Mr. Hogan doesn’t need to convince voters that they were right to elect him in 2014, he needs to make the case that he’s the right candidate for 2018. Consequently, he needs to paint a picture of where he intends to lead the state over the next four years. He doesn’t by any means need to match Mr. Jealous position paper for position paper, but he has done extremely little so far in the way of laying out an agenda beyond “more of the same.” Mr. Hogan needs to give voters a sense of what the state will be like in 2022 if we give him another term.
5. Be ready for the Trump question. It’s no secret that Mr. Jealous is working hard to activate voters who don’t regularly turn out in midterm elections but who want to send a message of opposition to President Trump. There is little question that he will try to draw a connection between Mr. Trump and Mr. Hogan during the debate. Polling consistently suggests that Mr. Hogan has done a good job of deflating that issue — the latest Goucher Poll shows that even among Democrats, more voters think he has distanced himself from President Trump the right amount (45 percent) than too little (32 percent). But the less this debate becomes about the president, the better for Mr. Hogan, so he should be prepared with an answer to shut down the issue rather than getting sucked into a discussion about whether he opposed Mr. Trump sufficiently on one matter or another. Mr. Hogan’s story about his father, the late Larry Hogan Sr., who was the first Republican in Congress to vote for all four articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon and whose name the younger Mr. Hogan wrote in for president rather than vote for Mr. Trump in 2016, is a terrific emotional and substantive counter punch. He should keep that in his back pocket should the need arise.