Gov. Larry Hogan is now the first Republican to win a second term as Maryland’s governor in six decades. He proved that a moderate who doesn’t mind straying from the party line can win in this deep blue state even in a bad year for the GOP. But his defeat of Democrat Ben Jealous — not much of a surprise given consistent polls showing him with a big lead, his massive fund-raising advantage and his dominance in paid media on television and online — leaves plenty of questions unanswered about Mr. Hogan’s future, the prospects for Maryland’s Democratic Party and the direction of the state in the years ahead. Here’s our analysis of what just happened and what comes next.
How will a re-elected Hogan govern?
One of the direst predictions Hogan opponents made was that the governor would abandon his first-term moderation and tack hard to the right in a second term. Perhaps he was just fooling us for four years and really is a doctrinaire conservative, the thinking goes, or maybe he’ll get national ambitions and start trying to appeal to Republican primary voters with hard-line positions on social issues. That, critics say, is exactly what happened with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was a mentor to Mr. Hogan early on.
Anything can happen, but we’re skeptical about this theory. Mr. Hogan has shown no signs of interest in abortion or gay rights, and he has even endorsed some gun control measures. As much as the Ben Jealous campaign tried to paint him as a champion of school vouchers, he has advocated for no more on that front than many Democratic leaders in the General Assembly have over the years.
And no matter what happens, Mr. Hogan will have to deal with a Democratic General Assembly. The most he can do is apply the brakes to the Democrats’ agenda, not advance his own. And not necessarily even that; it appears that Democrats will gain seats in the House of Delegates and lose a net of perhaps just one in the Senate, meaning that the legislature can override the governor’s vetoes if it wants. He does have a lot of power from his control of the budget, but as he has complained repeatedly, the legislature has removed most of the discretion from the state’s annual spending plans through mandates in education, health care and other areas. Mr. Hogan’s style, generally, has been to allow the Democrats to take the lead on policy issues, joining them on some issues, opposing them on others, and quite frequently staying out of the way altogether. If that has been an act, it’s been an impressive one.
What lessons will Democrats take from the Jealous campaign?
There’s been plenty of grumbling among Democratic establishment types about the campaign that Mr. Jealous ran. He’s made some gaffes, yes, but the bigger issue is the sense that he was badly outgunned from the start in terms of fundraising, strategy and communicating his message. Would it have made a difference if Democrats had nominated a more experienced candidate like Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker — or, had he not died unexpectedly before the primary, former Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz?
That debate is in itself a proxy for a broader war within the state party between an older generation of leaders, who tend to be moderate, and a new one of progressives. Mr. Jealous, a close supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is decidedly in the second camp. Is this a sign that Maryland isn’t really as liberal as some think?
We endorsed Mr. Jealous in the primary because we thought he was his party’s best candidate, and despite our endorsement of Mr. Hogan in the general election, we continue to believe that. Those pining for what might have been with Mr. Baker as the nominee should recall that he had trouble raising money in the primary and had his own vulnerabilities that Mr. Hogan would have exploited (chiefly, recent trouble in the Prince George’s schools). Mr. Kamenetz had more money in his coffers but also some baggage in the crucial battleground of Baltimore County.
Ultimately, we would argue that this result is less a reflection on Mr. Jealous than on Mr. Hogan. It’s not so much that he ran a textbook campaign; it’s that he’s been working up to it for two or more years. He has positioned himself masterfully on health care, the environment, higher education, gun control and more. Most crucially, he set himself up as a contrast to Mr. Trump in style and substance in a way that blunted Democrats efforts to tie the governor to a president who is profoundly unpopular in this state. Mr. Hogan has proved himself a rare political talent, and he played at the top of his game.
Democratic Party leaders need to think back on the burning desire they had to oust the state’s last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., 12 years ago. Legislative leaders worked diligently to force him into unpopular decisions, and politically active Marylanders poured money into then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s campaign. This year, it wasn’t just a question of whether the Democratic establishment liked Mr. Jealous, it was that they didn't dislike Governor Hogan all that much.
Does Governor Hogan have a future in national politics?
Eight years ago, Governor O’Malley’s decisive re-election in what was a terrible year for Democrats (it was the year of the tea party wave) instantly put him in the conversation for the 2016 presidential race. Does Governor Hogan’s win in what was generally a bad year for his party in a deep blue state catapult him into the ranks of national Republican up-and-comers?
We’re hesitant to underestimate him at this point, but that seems unlikely. Even if Mr. Trump loses and the Republican Party finds itself looking for a very different candidate in 2024, Mr. Hogan’s defense of Obamacare, his disinterest in talking about abortion, his record on guns and more would work strongly against him in a Republican primary. Fitting himself to the mold of what GOP primary voters are looking for would rob him of the authenticity that is his chief asset.
It’s not inconceivable, though, that he could make a strong candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2024. Sen. Ben Cardin, who was easily re-elected Tuesday, will be 81 then. If he chooses to retire rather than run again, Mr. Hogan’s message of moderation and bi-partisan cooperation could make him a strong contender for the seat.