For Maryland Republicans, the meaning of Tuesday’s elections could be summed up in three words: “We’re relevant again.”
That assessment by Joe Cluster, the state party’s executive director, followed a decisive win by Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan and gains for Republican members of the General Assembly. Come January, a party that many had dismissed as unlikely to ever win another statewide contest in heavily Democratic Maryland will all of a sudden have a real say in Annapolis.
Some giddy party members already are talking about a second term for Hogan and wondering whether his victory — the second election of a Republican governor in the past 12 years — might be a signal that a state long perceived as liberal could become more purple than blue.
There was talk of using Hogan’s laserlike focus on tax relief to rebrand the GOP in Maryland in a way that could broaden the party’s base and cut into the Democrats’ enormous advantage in registered voters.
Hogan has “already brought a lot of new energy to the party,” said Louis M. Pope, a national party committeeman from Maryland. “We need to put in the time and resources to build Republican Party registration and build our party.”
Hogan has declined interviews since his election, with aides saying his first priority must be launching his transition.
The Republican pickups in Maryland came during an Election Day in which the party made big gains in Congress and other statehouses across the country — a GOP wave that Democrats have used to play down the significance of Hogan’s win.
After most ballots were tallied, Del. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) and some of his supporters boarded a bus from Frederick to Hogan’s unbridled victory celebration in Annapolis, arriving at 2 a.m. to find the governor-elect still shaking hands.
“I think this puts us back on the path to having a two-party state,” said Hough, who was elected to a Senate seat Tuesday.
Yet the big expectations are also tempered by the realization that Hogan must find a way to deliver on his promises of tax relief. It will take significant cooperation from Democrats, who still dominate the legislature, to do so.
There was a great deal of optimism among Maryland Republicans in 2002, as well, after Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was elected the state’s first Republican governor in more than 30 years. But Ehrlich tangled frequently with Democratic lawmakers and was ousted by challenger Martin O’Malley (D) after a single term.
Republican party leaders were deflated. “Donors dried up, and people walked away,” Cluster said. “People said we could never win again.”
In the years that followed, the 2-to-1 advantage that Democrats held in party registration continued to grow. When Ehrlich tried to make a comeback in 2010, he took a drubbing, losing to O’Malley by more than 14 percentage points.
Republican legislators grew accustomed to saying their piece but then essentially being ignored by a Democratic majority large enough to pass landmark O’Malley bills — legalizing same-sex marriage, abolishing the death penalty, raising the minimum wage and boosting taxes — with few, if any, GOP votes.
“It was basically miserable to be a Republican in there,” Hough said of his tenure in the House of Delegates.
During his campaign, Hogan, who owns an Anne Arundel County real estate business, stressed pocketbook concerns while avoiding divisive social issues. That formula should work to attract more voters over the long term, said Pope, the national party committeeman.
Ehrlich cautioned that for the party to consistently win over the long term, it will have to do a better job of reaching out to African Americans, who make up a greater share of the population in Maryland than any other state outside the Deep South.
Several traditionally solid Democratic voting constituencies, including African Americans, appear to have turned out in lower numbers for this election than they usually do.
Republicans will hold 14 of the 47 seats in Maryland’s Senate once the new members are sworn in, and probably 50 seats in the 141-member House. The size of the House delegation is a historic high for the party. But Republican numbers in both chambers are still low enough that Democrats can override Hogan vetoes if they hang together.
Hogan spokesman Adam Dubitsky has sought to play down expectations about the long-term ramifications of Hogan’s win over Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), who was O’Malley’s deputy for both his terms.
“It’s not a realignment. It’s not turning a blue state red,” Dubitsky said Tuesday. “It’s people who are tired of the last eight years.”
Throughout his campaign, Hogan pledged to work in a bipartisan fashion — something he will need to do in order to roll back the O’Malley tax increases.
In recent days, Democratic leaders signaled they are willing to try to work with the new governor. At the same time, they sounded skeptical of providing immediate tax relief, given projected budget shortfalls.
Sen. Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington) said Democrats should be more cooperative with Hogan than they were with Ehrlich, whose time in Annapolis was full of acrimony. Democrats considered Ehrlich’s election a fluke, Shank said, and spent four years trying to stymie every attempt the governor made to do anything.
Hogan’s election, in contrast, should be seen as a clear signal that Marylanders are not happy with the economy and their tax bills, the lawmaker said.
Hogan has a chance to “turn a new page in Maryland history,” Shank said. “He has such a great personality and a vision. . . . He will be an inclusive governor, and he’s going to lead from the center.”
Cluster, the state GOP director, said Maryland Democrats “have to realize they can’t be the party of ‘no.’ They’re going to have to work with [Hogan].”
Given the lopsided margins in the legislature, Republicans acknowledge one challenge will be keeping their expectations in check.
House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) said she realizes the limits to what Hogan can get done and is most excited to see how he “sets the agenda through the budget.”
Del. Justin D. Ready (R- Carroll) said that Marylanders can expect Hogan to quickly address the state’s “exponential growth in spending” and make government more efficient.
Ready, a former executive director of the state GOP, said that he and other lawmakers are not looking to get rid of all taxes and fees, just a modest amount of relief.
“Nobody is saying we’re going to be like Oklahoma, with really low taxes,” he said. “But we need to bring down the costs of living, and taxes are a big part of that.”
If Hogan can deliver, Ready said, the party can show Marylanders that Republicans are not the scary people that Democrats have sought to portray.
Ready cited an ad during the governor’s race aired by the Brown campaign that depicted Republicans as wanting to allow assault rifles on playgrounds.
“For us, this is an opportunity to show folks who may have an image of Republicans — that’s not what this is about,” he said.