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The very narrow path for Democrats against Larry Hogan

The very narrow path for Democrats against Larry Hogan
Gov. Larry Hogan gives remarks to supporters at his annual Waterfront BBQ in Edgewater to raise funds for his re-election campaign. (Baltimore Sun file photo)

If we were to try to find a bright side for Democrats in the first major poll on Maryland's 2018 gubernatorial race, released this week by Goucher College's Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center, it would be this: Four years ago, Larry Hogan was so little known (and not even certain to run) that the fall 2013 Goucher poll didn't even ask about him. The Democrat who would be his opponent the following year, then Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, had strong name recognition, and President Barack Obama was broadly popular. Yet Mr. Hogan won anyway. Now, Democrats can point to the profound unpopularity of President Donald Trump and Republican Congress and hope for for a liberal tea party moment in which voters come out of the woodwork to sweep the GOP from office, with Mr. Hogan as collateral damage.

But if that's brewing, there's no sign of it in the Goucher Poll results. Mr. Hogan remains popular, with a 62 percent approval rating, unchanged from February, and a majority of voters believe he has done enough — or even too much — to distance himself from President Trump. Pursuing the argument that Mr. Hogan hasn't opposed the president strongly enough on the travel ban or Chesapeake Bay funding or whatever the latest outrage may be just isn't sticking — even among Democrats. Only 37 percent of them think he is too close to the president.

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The lesson Democrats should have learned from 2014 is that a cookie cutter, nationalized campaign against Mr. Hogan won't work. Last time, Democrats ran ads with pictures of assault rifles on a playground and in a shopping cart to try to paint Mr. Hogan as a rabid supporter of gun rights, an issue he barely if ever discussed on the campaign trail (and has rarely addressed since). And they tried to wrap him into a "war on women" narrative that was ubiquitous at the time, only to be flattened by a response ad voiced by his daughter, Jaymi Sterling, vouching for him. If Democrats persist in a Hogan-equals-trump campaign, we can imagine a similarly effective retort in the form of a history lesson about Hogan family independence from their own party, focused on the late Larry Hogan Sr.'s principled stand against Richard Nixon during Watergate. If that ad isn't already edited and waiting to go, we'd be shocked.

Trying to nationalize this race isn't the path to victory, but a state-level attack on the governor won't be easy either. As was the case four years ago, the top issue on voters' minds is the economy and jobs, which is central to Mr. Hogan's brand — and one on which he can point to good results of late, with job growth beating the national average (and, always of note, Virginia) since he took office. Racial and social justice issues rank fairly high in voters minds, and Mr. Hogan can point to his decision to remove the Roger Taney statute from the State House and his support of criminal justice reform. Maryland voters care about the environment, and while activists would say the governor's record isn't perfect, it's better than most expected on issues ranging from fracking to greenhouse gas emissions.

What does that leave? Education is the No. 2 issue for voters, and while an assault on the governor's position on post-Labor Day school starts might not be the stuff of a winning campaign, there is a major conversation to be had about our vision for Maryland's schools. The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education is due to make its report by the end of the year, and that affords candidates the opportunity to stake out strong positions on issues of equity and funding. Transportation makes the list of top issues, and Democrats can and should question the details and general wisdom of Governor Hogan's plan for $9 billion in public-private partnerships to add lanes to the Capital Beltway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and I-270. There is a counter-argument to be made; whether it will resonate with voters — particularly in the Washington region that is crucial for Democrats — remains to be seen.

The issue of taxes comes in third (tied with health care). While this might not seem like the most obvious avenue for a Democratic attack on Mr. Hogan, it is worth noting that all his talk about how Maryland taxes too much has produced little in the way of results. He can blame Democrats for blocking him, but the truth is he hasn't proposed anything more than tinkering around the edges.

One silver lining for Democrats in this poll is that the party lacks a clear front-runner, with candidates from diverse backgrounds and perspectives all within striking distance of each other. The primary will not be a coronation, and no candidate can afford to stay above the fray. Whoever earns the right to challenge Governor Hogan will come with a well-honed message. He or she will need it.

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