Maryland Republicans have mounted an unprecedented effort to break Democrats’ supermajority in the state senate, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of Gov. Larry Hogan at a time when much of the nation is focused on a possible “blue wave.”
Republicans, who lag in voter registration in Maryland by a margin of more than 2-to-1, must flip five seats to break the veto-proof majority that Democrats have held for nearly 50 years. The state GOP has poured more than $100,000 into mailers and Facebook ads for candidates in the main targeted races, all of which are in districts Hogan (R) won in 2014.
The districts split in the 2016 presidential election, however, and 71 percent of Maryland voters disapprove of the job President Trump is doing, according to a Goucher Poll in September. Still, with Hogan’s approval ratings at record highs, and Democratic nominee Ben Jealous trailing him by double digits, Republican leaders think they can win if they mimic the governor’s focus on centrist, pocketbook issues.
“We’re telling our candidates to focus on what people care about and don’t go to the extremes,” said Patrick O’Keefe, the party’s executive director.
In bellwether Baltimore County, a Republican first-term delegate who is challenging a four-term Democratic senator appeared last week with first lady Yumi Hogan, grinning as dozens of supporters lined up for photos. In Anne Arundel, a Republican who lost the 2014 gubernatorial primary to Hogan now has his support as he battles a progressive activist for an open Senate seat. And in increasingly red Worcester County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a Republican delegate is hoping to oust a two-term Democratic incumbent who was mayor of Ocean City for a decade.
If the Republicans pick up five seats, and Hogan wins a second term, the governor will open the 2019 session with a much stronger veto pen, even though he will not be close to the majorities he would need to push through his legislative agenda.
The General Assembly overrode 15 Hogan vetoes during his first term, including on bills to restore voting rights to felons and require businesses to give paid sick leave. Reversing a veto requires a three-fifths vote in each chamber; currently, Democrats hold 33 of 47 Senate seats, and 91 of 141 seats in the House of Delegates.
Losing the supermajority would mean “a fundamentally different direction for the state,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), a sponsor of the paid-sick-leave legislation. “This is a fight about a philosophy of opportunity versus cutting government.”
The main targeted senate seats have all been held by Democrats for at least two terms, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said he is “confident in our candidates’ ability to win their elections.”
Hogan, who needs Democratic voters to achieve his goal of becoming the first reelected GOP governor of Maryland since 1954, has campaigned for several of the Republican hopefuls, but has not injected himself squarely into what the party is calling the “Drive for Five.”
“I don’t think there should be a two-thirds majority of either party,” Hogan said, adding that he would “of course” want to have a more friendly legislature.
But the governor has not contributed funds from his $9 million war chest, and his campaign said it could not provide a list of events where Hogan had appeared in support of the candidates.
Goucher College political science professor Mileah Kromer noted that Hogan has “positioned himself as someone who is independent.”
“I don’t know if his coattails stretch far enough,” she said.
Hogan, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) like to say bipartisanship characterized this year’s legislative session, in which the General Assembly passed laws to increase school safety and prevent health insurance premiums from skyrocketing.
But there were also some very public spats.
O’Keefe said the “most telling” example of why Republicans are fighting to break the supermajority was the vote to override Hogan’s veto of a law that stripped the governor, comptroller and state treasurer of their role in approving school construction projects.
The bill originated out of a dispute over air conditioning in classrooms. Hogan called it a “personal vendetta” against his ally, Comptroller Peter Franchot (D).
Sen. Steven S. Hershey Jr. (R-Kent) said the Republican effort “is not about far-right ideas . . . this is about legislating from the middle.” He said he is worried about the policies that will come with a cohort of progressive Democrats who ousted more moderate incumbents in the June primary.
“If we’ve got the ability to sustain vetoes, then everything becomes a negotiation to get buy-in from both parties,” Hershey said. “You get legislation that is more in the center — that’s what people want.”
In addition to the five seats originally targeted by the GOP, the party has recently provided funds to Republicans trying to win seats being vacated by retiring longtime Sens. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore County) and James E. “Ed” DeGrange (D-Anne Arundel). It is also supporting Republican nominee Bill Dotson in Charles County, where GOP officials consider progressive Democrat Arthur Ellis, who beat moderate longtime Sen. Thomas M. Middleton in a bitter primary, to be potentially vulnerable in a normally blue district. Some Democratic operatives say they are hoping to capitalize on anger at Trump to flip two seats held by Republicans in Howard and Harford counties, but that could be an uphill battle given the large margins by which Hogan won them.
Some centrist Democrats, including Miller, seemed sanguine about the prospect of losing their veto-proof majority.
Miller said he is “making certain our candidates have the tools they need so they can fairly compete” but “will be satisfied with whatever results our electorate produces on Election Day.” His office wouldn’t say how much money from the slate he controls has gone toward defending the targeted seats.
State Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee and is unopposed for reelection, declined to comment on possible changes if Republicans win five seats. Instead, he talked about both sides’ “proud record of working together” on issues including fracking, criminal justice reforms and gun laws.
But incoming senator Cory V. McCray, the lead sponsor in the House of the bill to restore voting rights to felons, said losing the Democratic supermajority would be “very impactful.”
“Forty thousand people would not have had their voting rights restored,” said McCray, a progressive state delegate from Baltimore City who ousted Senate President Pro Tempore Nathaniel J. McFadden (D) in the primary and is unopposed in the general election. “These are some competitive races . . . we’re all out here working hard.”
The Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group dedicated to electing down-ballot Republicans, has spent $90,000 on mailers opposing Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates. Spokesman David James called it “an initial investment” in Maryland and declined to say whether the group planned to put money into the senate races in the final weeks.
Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for Busch, said there are eight competitive House seats, but those are not the ones targeted by the RSLC. “It seems like there’s little rhyme or reason,” she said.
Ahead of the Nov. 6 election, candidates in states including Georgia, Florida and Virginia have portrayed themselves as either acolytes of the president or champions of the resistance.
The down-ballot races in Maryland, where Hogan has thrived by repeatedly distancing himself from Trump, have been different.
None of the five Republican candidates in the main targeted districts — in Baltimore, Frederick, Howard, Anne Arundel and Worcester Counties — mention the president on their websites. All have pictures of Hogan.
In Baltimore County, neither Democratic Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier nor her Republican challenger, Del. Christian J. Miele, bring up national politics on the campaign trail.
Instead, they talk about local issues, including school overcrowding and the opioids epidemic. Hogan carried the district by 36 points four years ago; Hillary Clinton won it by less than 1 percent.
“If I’m trying to bring people together, then why would I want to bring that into it?” Miele, 37, said when asked about Trump.
“When I knock on a door and someone tells me, ‘I’m a Republican,’ then I say ‘so?’ ” Klausmeier, 68, said.
In some cases, the Democrats in the targeted districts also appeared to be cozying up to the governor — or at least distancing themselves from Jealous, a progressive who is pushing universal health-care, a $15 minimum wage and other liberal proposals.
In the race to succeed longtime Sen. John C. Astle (D-Anne Arundel), former Republican state delegate Ronald A. George denounced Democrat Sarah Elfreth as being too close with Jealous. She refuted the critique, saying her campaign is focused on local issues and completely independent.
Miele criticized Klausmeier when the Democratic Senate Caucus Committee, a political slate controlled by Miller, sent out fliers with pictures of Klausmeier and Hogan together, saying they had the “same goal.”
Del. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Worcester), who has been endorsed by Hogan, reprimanded her opponent Sen. James N. Mathias Jr. (D-Somerset) — the former Ocean City mayor — for remarks in which he complimented Hogan, saying she will “stand with” the governor “when it counts, not just when it’s politically convenient.”
On her website, Carozza has a picture of herself posing with Hogan, next to a photograph of Mathias and Jealous.
“Maryland’s Eastern Shore has a clear choice this November,” the caption reads. “You pick the team!”
Erin Cox contributed to this report.