While many Marylanders are watching the twists and turns in the race for governor, political insiders have their eyes fixed on a lower-profile but significant effort that could dramatically remake the state’s governance.
From Frederick County to the Eastern Shore, Republicans have embarked on a campaign they’re calling the “Drive for Five” — an effort to flip five seats in the state Senate and end the Democrats’ supermajority in the General Assembly.
If successful, the drive would give the GOP enough votes to block Democrats as a party from overriding Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes, should he win a second term.
“The Republican Party wants more power and influence and that’s what they’re trying to do,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s college of public affairs. “They’re trying to tell their base, ‘If the Republicans pick up these five seats, the Democrats will lose a significant amount of power over the governor's agenda.’”
Republicans control 14 of the Senate’s 47 seats. Maryland law requires a three-fifths vote of the Senate to override a governor’s veto, meaning Republicans need to pick up five more seats to stop an override by Democrats alone.
The ability to easily override Hogan’s veto power has come in handy for Democrats throughout the Republican’s tenure. The Democratic-controlled General Assembly has overridden Hogan’s vetoes of legislation requiring paid sick leave, barring colleges from asking prospective students about criminal histories and changing the way school construction projects are approved.
A supermajority can influence the executive branch in another way. Hogan has allowed some bills he didn’t like to become law without his signature, knowing the legislature could override any vetoes. Examples include legislation that gave money to state Attorney General Brian Frosh to sue the Trump administration, that automatically puts residents on the voting rolls when they get a driver's license, and that removed a governor’s power to appoint members to Baltimore’s liquor board.
Hogan said the Drive for Five has a reasonable chance of success and is “about trying to bring some balance.”
When Democrats “can override every single veto, it makes it hard for us to be able to sit down and negotiate and come up with compromise and reach balanced solutions, which is what I think most people in Maryland want,” the governor said.
Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the paid sick leave bill, said Democrats have moved “a lot of pieces of legislation” without Hogan’s support that they couldn’t without the supermajority.
“In the case of earned sick leave, thousands of Marylanders benefited,” Clippinger said. “Democrats have been speaking to what working families have been looking for out of the legislature. In this case, it’s about making sure people don’t have to choose between getting sick and going to work.”
Republicans identified eight Senate seats now held by Democrats they think they can turn red on Election Day Nov. 6. They argue ending the Democrats’ supermajority will mean that virtually every bill that passes will need at least some bipartisan support.
“We’re focused on the Senate because the opportunity to get five is very good,” said Patrick O’Keefe, director of the Maryland Republican Party. “It would finally allow us to bring balance to the State House.”
Melissa Deckman, a professor of political science at Washington College, said if Republicans are successful it would be a “significant victory.”
“It would force Senate Democrats to throw more bones at the Republican Party,” Deckman said. “You could expect more moderate legislation. It also could potentially introduce gridlock into the equation.”
Republican state Sen. Steve Hershey, who represents the Eastern Shore, said the GOP has been working for “a year and a half” on flipping the seats. He said national Republican groups have gotten involved, including GOPAC, which is helping with training and strategy for the candidates.
“We’ve got great younger candidates. Those districts are moving a little further to the right. We think we’ve got the candidates who can win those seats,” he said.
Hershey said Republican efforts were helped when Senate Finance Chairman Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, lost in a primary election upset to Arthur Ellis.
“It opened the door for us,” Hershey said. “That was a seat we were not taking. Now, we have a chance.”
He said a successful effort would prevent partisan gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts after the 2020 census.
“There will be no more bad legislation,” Hershey said. “The majority party will not be able to push things through without the Republicans having a say. You will get a legislature that governs toward the center.”
Republicans feel particularly confident about picking up a northern Baltimore County seat now held by Sen. Jim Brochin, who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for Baltimore County executive. In a match-up between two lawyers from different generations, Republican Chris West, 68, promises to practice bipartisanship if he’s voted into the Senate in a district that’s become increasingly conservative. West also wants the state to follow through on a plan to add one lane in each direction on the Baltimore Beltway and to start a Towson circulator bus.
Robbie Leonard, 36, proudly said he’ll bring Democratic values to the state Senate if he wins.
“Yes, I’m a Democrat, I’m going to be voting like a Democrat,” said Leonard, a former chairman of the county Democratic Party. “I’ll work with everybody. I’m not someone running for office pretending to be someone I’m not.”
Leonard said if voters liked Brochin — who was popular for his visibility in the community and his independent streak — then he’s the better choice.
Fabion Seaton, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, said the “Fight for Five” is wishful thinking from the GOP. The Democrats in some of the targeted districts — such as Sen. Ron Young in Frederick County and Sen. Jim Mathias in Worcester County — are beloved elected officials who are unlikely to lose, while other districts are just too blue for the Republicans to flip, he argues.
While they defend seats in the Senate, Democrats are hoping to pick up numbers in the House of Delegates, where they control 91 of 141 seats.
“Democrats are fired up and energized and will turn out in record numbers in November,” Seaton predicted. “These are Democrats who believe in Democratic values, and they want elected leaders who are going to fight for families, better schools and health care.”
Democrats feel confident about holding onto several of the targeted seats, including the split Howard-Baltimore county district now held by Sen. Edward Kasemeyer. When Kasemeyer unexpectedly announced his retirement, the three delegates in the district agreed among themselves that first-term Del. Clarence Lam would seek the Senate job. He faces businessman Joe Hooe, a Republican who has dabbled in politics in the past.
Hooe, 50, thinks his campaign can work harder than Lam's to reach voters. He says he’s buoyed by the fact he was born in the district and serves with volunteer groups.
"People respond well to me," Hooe said. "Public service is in my DNA."
Lam, 37, emphasized his knowledge of the district and talked about the importance of education and health care to his constituents. He often used "we" when talking about his achievements in the last four years in an interview, reflecting the close bond he has with the two other delegates.
"If this was something we didn't view as competitive, we wouldn't be going through all this effort," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Ian Duncan and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.