With the 2017 General Assembly session over, the 2018 gubernatorial race has begun.
At least eight Democrats are weighing whether to jump into the wide-open party primary next year to challenge popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for Maryland's top office.
The session ended Monday. Now that the legislature has cleared the political stage — and the annual ban on political fundraising during the 90-day session has ended — the hopefuls are racing to raise money and capture the attention of party activists.
Democrats see an opportunity to reclaim the governor's mansion in a state where they outnumber Republicans more than 2-1.
Rep. John Delaney, former Maryland attorney general Douglas F. Gansler, county executives Kevin Kamenetz and Rushern Baker, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., former NAACP executive director Benjamin Jealous, former Venable chairman James Shea, and entrepreneur and author Alec Ross all are exploring runs.
Hogan, meanwhile, is working to become the first Republican to be re-elected governor in Maryland in more than 60 years. Governing as a GOP moderate with an independent streak, he has maintained favorable approval ratings deep into his first term.
Much is at stake: The winner of the November 2018 election will oversee the once-in-a-decade redistricting process, in which the state draws legislative districts for both Congress and the state legislature.
Political strategists estimate the campaign will cost the winning candidate between $10 million and $20 million.
Hogan had $5 million on hand in January, the most recent reporting deadline. He also has the support of the deep-pocketed Republican Governors Association, which praised him last week him as the second-most-popular governor in the country.
That's a stronger position than he was in at this point four years ago, when he hadn't yet announced his candidacy. He upset Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in 2014 to become Maryland's second GOP governor in nearly half a century.
"Larry Hogan's now not just some Republican who happened to win," said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College. "Now he is someone with the full force of the [national] Republican Party behind him. I think he's proven himself a sophisticated political animal."
The expense of the race and the potentially crowded field has Democrats exploring how soon they should formally start campaigning for the June 2018 primary.
Baker, the Prince George's County executive, and Kamenetz, the Baltimore County executive, have repeatedly expressed interest in taking on Hogan.
Baker spent Monday, the final day of the General Assembly session, working the halls in Annapolis.
Kamenetz said Thursday he had been "humbled by the number of people who are encouraging me to run."
Gansler, who lost the 2014 Democratic primary race for governor to Brown, said last week he's still weighing whether to try again.
He predicted campaigns will soon start in earnest.
"It's very early," he said. "People are starting to warm up, stretch out and see whether they want to be at the starting line when the gun goes off."
Delaney said Democrats had "a heck of a field, and they're all worthy candidates" But it won't discourage him from running himself.
"I'm absolutely considering it, largely because so many people encouraged me," the Montgomery County Democrat said. He said he would have something "formal to say on the matter" in June.
The race has attracted at least three prominent men who have been close to politics but have never run for elected office.
Jealous, the former NAACP director, has visited Democratic clubs on the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland and the Young Democrats convention.
He gained prominence in political circles as a surrogate for Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. He has hired veteran Maryland Democratic operative Travis Tazelaar to help with his exploratory bid.
"For Ben, it's about getting in front of people and listening to what they want," Tazelaar said.
Ross, an entrepreneur, best-selling author, Johns Hopkins fellow and former aide to President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, said he's "leaning strongly" toward running for governor. He said a decision is "imminent."
"We are hiring up," Ross said. "I'm exactly the kind of candidate who can and will beat Larry Hogan."
Shea, the former Venable chair, said he had surpassed his goal to raise $500,000 by this week, and is hopeful now that the legislature has adjourned he can grab attention from more party activists.
"They are people who have been distracted who are now free and can meet with you," Shea said. He intends to make a final decision about the race by June, and is encouraged by his early fundraising numbers. "It means that I have a lot of people whose expectations I have to live up to," Shea said.
And Madaleno, a leading critic of Hogan in the legislature, said he's eager to move forward with a run, but has not begun fundraising or hiring a campaign staff.
Del. Maggie McIntosh evaluated a run for governor, and even printed "McIntosh 2018" bumper stickers. But the Baltimore Democrat, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said Friday she had concluded in recent weeks that "my heart led me right back to the legislature."
"I have thought long and hard on this, looked at numbers, and I think living through that last session and being able to help and to work with city leaders to help the city schools [with funding], I have decided the best place for me is in the legislature," she said.
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, said the early jockeying among Democrats sets conditions for "a very expensive primary and probably a more bloody battle than the last time around."
Hogan's decision not to endorse Donald Trump for president last year angered some Republicans, and some of his supporters predicted it could provoke a primary challenge in 2018. But GOP leaders say they've seen no such effort, and the party has made a priority of re-electing him.
Polls show Hogan is the second most popular governor in the nation after Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, another pragmatic Republican in a Democratic state.
Hogan's political strategist, Russell Schriefer, said the governor does not plan to dramatically step up fundraising or campaigning.
"He believes the adage that good governing is good politics," Schriefer said. "The strategy is going to be to continue to govern the state in the way that he has."
On the day after the session ended, Hogan appeared at a bill-signing ceremony with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats. The governor spoke of compromise and bipartisanship.
"Most of our highest priorities all got done," Hogan said. "This is the way government is supposed to work."
He has also managed to squeeze in time for retail politics. On Opening Day for the Orioles, he parked his campaign bus outside the stadium at Camden Yards and worked the crowd for hours while campaign staffers handed out stickers that say "WE LOVE OUR GOV."
"He must have shaken a couple thousand hands," Schriefer said. "Is that being governor or is that campaigning?"
While the gubernatorial race will capture most of the attention, campaigning has begun all down the ballot.
The morning after the session ended, eight state lawmakers filed for re-election. The chairman of the Maryland Republican Party was flooded with fundraising invitations from potential candidates across the state.
The leader of a group that helps Democratic women run for office said more than 40 had contacted her for guidance to get on ballots.
Emerge Maryland Chairwoman Martha McKenna said Trump's election had raised interest among Democratic voters who otherwise might tune out after a national election.
"On social media, the level of conversation about policy in Maryland over the past four months is so much more sophisticated than I have ever seen before," she said. "Women are stepping up everywhere, in cities, in rural areas, are saying 'I'm going to run.'"
Dirk Haire, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said GOP efforts this year will be focused largely on recruiting candidates to run for the General Assembly, where Republicans have long sought ways to bust the Democrats' veto-proof majorities.
"It's very helpful to have the governor to help support our fundraising efforts," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.