Let's say you're a Democrat in Maryland's legislature, faced with the seemingly unthinkable situation that your party's anointed candidate for governor managed somehow to lose to a Republican. A year into his term, you're already well into plotting his downfall in the next election when a poll comes out showing just how strikingly popular he is despite the state's better than 2-1 Democratic advantage in voter registration.
That's precisely the situation the party faced 12 years ago when polls by The Sun and others showed then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. with approval ratings in the high 50s or better. So there's no reason for Democrats to panic now about Gov. Larry Hogan's strong showing in the latest Goucher Poll, right?
Wrong. It's not just that Governor Hogan notched a 58 percent approval rating (compared to 18 percent disapproval), or even that a majority of Democrats approve of his performance in office. It's that the Goucher survey demonstrates just how much voters' attitudes have shifted since the Ehrlich era. Deep blue though Maryland may be, it's a much more receptive place for the kind of message Mr. Hogan is delivering than it was when Mr. Ehrlich was in office.
Back then, both The Sun and The Washington Post found substantial majorities of voters in favor of adding a penny to the sales tax to pay for education. Those interviewed by The Sun at the time seemed a bit mystified at Mr. Ehrlich's refusal to entertain the idea. Even a majority of Republicans supported it. On that and a variety of other issues, Democrats knew they were on the right side of the issues, as far as voters were concerned, and Mr. Ehrlich wasn't, so the task was to chip away at his personal popularity by forcing him into confrontations over policy.
But the numbers from Goucher suggest that isn't the case this time. On a host of issues, voters are siding with Mr. Hogan. Goucher found net positives for Mr. Hogan on every one it polled: job creation, economic growth, education, taxes, criminal justice, the environment and transportation. When asked what the most important issue was facing the state, the largest share of respondents picked education (15 percent), which is almost always the case in Maryland. But the next three issues are right in Mr. Hogan's wheelhouse — taxes (14 percent), economic growth and development (13 percent) and jobs and unemployment (11 percent).
Here's one other tidbit that should keep the Democratic Party leaders up at night. Mr. Ehrlich notched his high approval ratings 12 years ago at a time when Republican President George W. Bush had a 55 percent approval rating in Maryland. Mr. Hogan is doing it at a time when Democratic President Barack Obama has a 53 percent approval rating here. That is to say, Mr. Hogan is effectively swimming against the current.
The kind of wedge social issues Democrats might have used to force Governor Hogan into awkward positions have disappeared since the Ehrlich years, largely because former Gov. Martin O'Malley was so effective in addressing them. Thus, Mr. Hogan can sidestep everything from gay marriage to marijuana decriminalization by calling it a matter of settled law. He has shown remarkable discipline in not taking the bait on such issues — for example, his refusal to comment last week after Democrats held a rally urging him to protect funding for Planned Parenthood — and instead is talking about the pocketbook issues voters care most about.
Democrats haven't been silent on those matters — the legislature announced plans to create its blue-ribbon Augustine Commission on Economic Development and Business Climate before Mr. Hogan even declared his candidacy — but Mr. Hogan's brand is so strong that they have a hard time breaking through. Thus, last week alone he was able to get away with seizing credit for the largest income tax refund in state history (which was the result of a Supreme Court decision) and the formation of the Maryland Department of Commerce (an Augustine Commission recommendation voted into law by the General Assembly this spring). The legislature's top Democrats fumed in March when Mr. Hogan lauded them for "parroting" his stances on business issues, and rightly so, but the fact of the matter is that he owns that territory as far as voters are concerned.
A lot can happen between now and 2018. A major economic downturn could sour voters on Mr. Hogan whether his policies had anything to do with it or not. Mr. Ehrlich surely didn't anticipate the massive BGE rate hike that was a key factor in his electoral defeat, and an issue could certainly come out of nowhere to haunt Mr. Hogan. But if Democrats think they can beat the governor by simply dusting off the playbook they used against Mr. Ehrlich, it looks like they're mistaken.