Maryland's 2018 governor's race is Larry Hogan's to lose.
Gov. Larry Hogan emerged from the 2017 General Assembly session upbeat about what he had just accomplished. And why not? He came into the year with the most ambitious legislative package of his term, touching on a wide variety of issues beyond the economic and taxation themes that animated his campaign, including proposals dealing with the environment, public health, education, ethics and even paid sick leave for workers. He notched wins on much of his agenda — particularly given his willingness to declare victory even when Democrats in the General Assembly substantially re-write his proposals.
More pertinently, Democrats barely laid a glove on him. Their clearest strategy to weaken the broadly popular Republican before next year's election was to tie him to the profoundly unpopular Republican president, Donald Trump. They pressured him to be more publicly outspoken against Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but he was bailed out by the failure of President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan to build support within their own caucus for a replacement plan. Democrats tried to force him into a confrontation with the president over the administration's proposal to eliminate federal Chesapeake Bay cleanup funding. But any vulnerability he has on the environment was mitigated by his willingness to allow energy efficiency and oyster protection bills to go into law without his signature, and by his public support for a ban on fracking. Democrats tried to drive a wedge between the governor and the state's anti-Trump voters with bills to guarantee state funding for Planned Parenthood and to provide Attorney General Brian Frosh with resources to sue the federal government. He let those become law, too. Legislation that could have forced Mr. Hogan into siding with the Trump administration on immigration enforcement failed because of disagreements among Democrats.
Positioning for re-election
Governor Hogan is sitting pretty at the pivot point in his term when attention shifts from governing to preparing for the next election. But he still has some decisions to make about how to position himself as he seeks to become the first Republican governor of Maryland to win a second term since Theodore McKeldin in 1954.
Of immediate concern is legislation that passed the legislature to require most employers to provide paid sick leave for their workers. It is not the governor's proposal, which exempted businesses with fewer than 50 workers but provided tax incentives for those firms to offer the benefit. Instead, it applies to companies with 15 employees or more. Mr. Hogan threatened to veto the measure, calling it a job killer, but after it cleared both chambers by veto-proof margins, he became non-committal.
We have always had reservations about this legislation, and Mr. Hogan could please his backers in the business community by vetoing it. But Mr. Hogan has also shown an aversion to fighting losing battles. The fact that he has voiced support for the concept of paid sick leave, though not this particular proposal, makes this a question of nuance rather than principle.
That's not strong ground for him, and battling over it goes counter to the tack his messaging has taken in recent weeks. The man who ran against Democrats' "monopoly" in this state under the Change Maryland banner is now emphasizing the degree to which he is working well with members of the other party in the legislature rather than fighting them. In the waning hours of the General Assembly session, Mr. Hogan's press office sent out bulletins headlined "Bipartisanship Alert" trumpeting progress on bills dealing with the heroin crisis, tax fraud prevention, manufacturing tax credits and other issues. He seems to have recognized that it's much harder to run against Annapolis when you're the face of it. As such, we wouldn't be at all surprised to see him let this bill go into law without his signature.
If Mr. Hogan risks having his base desert him for being insufficiently conservative, we're not seeing signs of it. The governor ran on a promise to roll back former Gov. Martin O'Malley's tax increases as much as possible, but he hasn't really even tried. Mr. Hogan reduced some tolls and fees, but he hasn't sought to reverse the increases in the sales tax, alcohol tax, tobacco tax or income tax for higher income households that Mr. O'Malley enacted. The cuts he has managed to pass nibble around the edges for a few groups of taxpayers. Yet we have seen no pressure from Republican elected officials for him to do more, and the latest Washington Post poll shows that his job approval ratings among GOP voters remain stratospheric. There is no need for him to move to the right during the next year.
The Trump problem
But the Trump administration may yet pose problems for Governor Hogan. He has been adept so far at sidestepping traps Democrats set for him, but he may not be able to so easily avoid those Mr. Trump and Republicans in Congress put in his way. President Trump's proposal to slash the size of the federal government — including eliminating thousands of civilian jobs and cutting spending on medical research — could send Maryland's economy into a tailspin. About 10 percent of the state's workforce is employed by a civilian federal agency, and many other workers are indirectly tied to federal spending. We can assume that President Trump's plans won't be enacted as-is, but it would be surprising if a unified Republican government didn't seek significant spending cuts. Even the budget sequestration that took place during President Barack Obama's administration brought Maryland's economy to a standstill. Anything approaching that could be bad news for Mr. Hogan.
Still, the advantage the governor has is the old political adage, "You can't beat somebody with nobody," and the Democrats, so far, haven't begun to coalesce around a "somebody" to take him on.
Who can beat him?
Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has a good story to tell about the progress he has made in turning around an economically stagnant, politically corrupt jurisdiction. In an open election when voters are looking for a new, fresh face, that could be a winning message. But that doesn't look like the kind of election we're going to have.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has been championing more progressive causes in recent years, on issues like housing, police reform and immigration. He has also sparred with the governor on a variety of fronts, most memorably the pace at which the county was installing air conditioning in its schools. But to win, he would need to run up huge margins in the Washington suburbs, where he is not well known, while facing off a stiff challenge from Mr. Hogan in his home county. (In 2014, Mr. Hogan got 12,000 more votes in Baltimore County than Mr. Kamenetz did.)
Rep. John Delaney has long been considered a potential gubernatorial candidate. He has the ability to self-finance a campaign, and he has a political base in vote-rich Montgomery County. But his strength — that he is a moderate businessman and political outsider — is precisely the same as Mr. Hogan's. Would voters dump Mr. Hogan for a Democratic version of himself?
Former NAACP head Benjamin Jealous has said he is considering a run, as he has in at least two previous races (for U.S. Senate and Baltimore mayor). He has the potential to fire up both the progressive and African-American constituencies in the Democratic Party, and he has the ability to raise money nationally. But his strength as a political candidate remains untested.
Finally, at least two members of the General Assembly are considering runs — Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore and Sen. Richard Madaleno of Montgomery County. Both are stars of the legislature, sharp on both policy and politics, but it's a big jump from there to the governor's mansion. No sitting member of the legislature has been elected governor in Maryland since John Lee Carroll in 1876. (Marvin Mandell was elevated to the post when Spiro Agnew became vice president.)
Democrats may hope, with some reason, that anti-Trump fervor will send more Democrats to the polls in 2018 than turned out in 2014, when Mr. Hogan upset then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown. They can point to polling showing that his job approval numbers don't translate into a slam-dunk over a hypothetical Democratic candidate. They can also hope that unforeseen events will intervene to weaken Mr. Hogan's chances; former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. certainly didn't see a 72 percent BGE rate hike coming. But after his third legislative session, Mr. Hogan is in as strong a position as he can be. The 2018 election is his to lose.