Heading into an election pitting them against a governor with sky-high popularity numbers, state Democrats found hope in the blue wave that swept through Virginia, New Jersey and two Maryland cities this week.
The comfortable victories scored in gubernatorial elections Tuesday by Ralph Northam in Virginia and Phil Murphy in New Jersey, combined with the crushing defeats Democrats inflicted on Republican incumbent mayors in Annapolis and Frederick, brought an adrenaline rush to a party that was stunned by its loss of the governor’s mansion to Republican Larry Hogan in 2014.
Hogan has recently been rated the nation’s second-most popular governor, but his prospective challengers pounced on Tuesday’s results as evidence that the nomination they are seeking is more than a ticket to defeat in the 2018 general election. Key to their hopes is the anticipation that the wave of anti-Donald Trump sentiment that powered their Virginia victory will be even stronger north of the Potomac next year.
“It’s clear that Larry Hogan is a lame duck walking,” said state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who is one of eight candidates seeking the nomination in the June 26 primary. “Democrats are going to come out in droves next year to reject the Republican agenda.”
"If your name is Larry Hogan, two things are clear: There is a blue tide rising and Donald Trump is one mighty big anchor," said Ben Jealous, former president of the national NAACP and another Democratic hopeful. The other six Democratic candidates also welcomed the results, which included dramatic gains for the party in the Virginia House of Delegates and mayoral victories across the country.
Jim Barnett, Hogan’s campaign manager, insisted the results would have little relevance to the governor’s campaign.
“Voters know that Governor Hogan is radically different in both tone and substance than what they see coming out of Washington, D.C.,” Barnett said. “His moderate, bipartisan approach is the antidote to what ails the country, and represents the sort of politics Marylanders want more of from their leaders.”
Hogan goes into 2018 with advantages this year’s Republican gubernatorial candidates didn’t have. In particular, Hogan has kept a wary distance from Trump and announced he didn’t vote for him in the 2016 general election. Nor has Hogan identified himself strongly with some of the conservative social issues that don’t poll well in Maryland.
In Virginia, Democrats tied GOP nominee Ed Gillespie firmly to Trump. In the late stages of the campaign, Gillespie aligned himself with Trump on issues such as immigration and Confederate monuments, only to see white suburban college-educated voters turn out strongly to reject that approach.
In New Jersey, Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno went into her race against Murphy trying and failing to shake the legacy of unpopular GOP Gov. Chris Christie. Hogan will run as an incumbent on his own record.
But Democrats think Hogan has made missteps by endorsing out-of-state Republican candidates who ran as Trump supporters. The state Democratic Party has sought to tie Hogan to Gillespie, for whom he campaigned last weekend, and the Virginia candidates’ ads calling his opponent soft on pedophiles and the El Salvadoran gang MS-13. Democrats have also criticized Hogan for his endorsement of Scott Wagner, a candidate for Pennsylvania governor who is an outspoken Trump supporter.
In a conference call Wednesday to celebrate the win, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez took the opportunity to tie Hogan to both Trump and Trump’s controversial former aide, Steve Bannon.
“The Hogan-Bannon-Trump troika stumped for Ed Gillespie,” Perez said.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said that there is no evidence that Democratic attempts to tie Hogan to Trump are getting much traction. Her September Goucher Poll showed Hogan with a 59 percent favorable rating among Democrats and 62 percent overall.
But a year is a long time in politics, Kromer added. She predicted that the Virginia results could make Hogan more cautious about whom he endorses and who endorses him.
“The last thing Larry Hogan needs is Donald Trump tweeting about the Maryland gubernatorial election,” Kromer said.
Kromer said the national results — along with those in Annapolis and Frederick — could carry over into 2018.
“It gives Democrats a little bit of enthusiasm, a little bit of a boost of confidence,” she said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, said he was “ecstatic” about the results.
“The last time New Jersey and Virginia governorships both went to Democrats was in 2005,” he said. “The following year. the Democrats took the United State House of Representatives.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
What Miller could have said, but didn’t, was that was the year another Republican Maryland governor with high approval ratings, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., was defeated by Democrat Martin O’Malley.
Maryland Democrats were just as pleased by the results in Annapolis and Frederick, which are among the few Maryland municipalities besides Baltimore to hold partisan election contests.
In Annapolis, Democrat Gavin Buckley ousted Republican Mayor Mike Pantelides by 24 percentage points while his party took seven of eight alderman positions. In Frederick, Democrat Michael O’Connor beat Mayor Randy McClement by 22 points. Democrats swept all five alderman position by landslide margins.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, said the wins there and in Frederick “will resonate throughout the state of Maryland.”
State Democratic Party Chairman Kathleen Matthews called the Frederick election “a bellwether of what we’re going to see in 2018.”
Dirk Haire, her Republican counterpart, dismissed that notion. He noted that in 2001 the Democrats won Frederick and Annapolis mayoral elections only to see Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. elected the next year.
“I don’t think it has any practical effect on what will happen next year,” Haire said.