The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hogan is the most popular Maryland governor since at least 1998

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan on Tuesday in Annapolis. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's popularity has soared to record levels in heavily Democratic Maryland, according to a new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.

About two-thirds of Marylanders, 66 percent, approve of Hogan’s tenure more than a year after he took office, up 5 percentage points since October and higher than any governor in Post polls dating to 1998. His predecessor, Martin O’Malley (D), did not come close to Hogan’s level of approval in his eight-year tenure.

Facing an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, Hogan has governed as a moderate, focusing on taxes and other pocketbook issues while avoiding polarizing social topics such as abortion or religious-objection laws.

A straight talker, he is not afraid to scold and snipe at Democrats who don't share his priorities. But he also has avoided potentially damaging standoffs by fully funding the state's public school systems and agreeing to direct money toward ­higher-education projects and a Prince George's County hospital.

This approach is paying off among registered Democrats in the state. Almost twice as many approve of his performance as disapprove, 56 percent vs. 29 percent, according to the poll.

Chris Zhang, a Democrat and a Bernie Sanders supporter, said he was skeptical of having a Republican in the governor’s mansion but is impressed by the lack of controversy surrounding Hogan.

“I think he’s been doing a good job,” said Zhang, 33, a health-care information technology worker who lives in Columbia. “I haven’t seen anything egregious on the news to suggest otherwise.”

A smashing good time for Hogan on Maryland’s ‘Taekwando Day’

Some poll respondents who criticized Hogan cited concerns expressed this year by leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus, who accused Hogan of carrying out racially biased policies by funding a new jail in Baltimore rather than several construction projects at historically black universities. Hogan responded by agreeing to redirect the jail funding to campus construction.

“I think he’s prioritizing prisons over education,” said Vera Holman, a 48-year-old black Owings Mills resident who is not registered with either political party. Told that Hogan had dropped his plan to build the new jail, however, she said the reversal merits a second look at the governor’s record.

The improving economy and a sense of optimism about Maryland’s future is buoying support for the governor, a former commercial estate broker and first-time officeholder who successfully battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year and remains in remission.

A majority of residents polled, 54 percent, say things in Maryland are headed in the right direction. Between 51 and 58 percent approve of Hogan’s handling of the economy, taxes, education and transportation.

His approval ratings dip to 35 percent for dealing with heroin abuse in the state. But a smaller 25 percent disapprove, and the rest have no opinion on the issue.

A year in, Hogan is adept at sidestepping criticism

Overall, the Post-U-Md. poll suggests that black lawmakers’ pointed criticism has not resonated broadly outside of Annapolis, with 57 percent of African Americans statewide approving of the governor.

Majority approval of the governor stretches across all demographics and regions of the state, except liberals and young people. Even among these groups, more say they approve than disapprove.

Democratic lawmakers in the state are less well regarded by Marylanders, the poll found, despite their party’s more than 2-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans.

Some 48 percent of respondents approve and 39 percent disapprove of the way Democrats in the legislature are handling their jobs. More, 57 percent, approve of Hogan’s efforts to work with Democrats in the General Assembly.

The poll found strong support for legislation on criminal justice reform that is making its way through the legislature, which ends its 90-day session on Monday.

A whopping 81 percent of Marylanders support efforts to shift nonviolent drug offenders to treatment rather than prison, according to the poll. And roughly 7 in 10 support an approach combining early release from prison for nonviolent offenders and moving away from mandatory minimum sentences.

When looking only at Republicans, support for changes in sentencing policy drops to a smaller majority of 55 percent.

Hogan supports reducing the prison population and expanding treatment, but he has expressed concern about the House going even further to relax penalties. Progressives in that chamber are pushing to eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences.

Sweeping criminal justice bill under consideration

William Nolen, a 47-year-old assistant principal at a Baltimore elementary and middle school, said he's seen the toll of drug penalties in students who miss school to visit incarcerated relatives and who resign themselves to ending up behind bars, too. He said the shift to treatment instead of prison is overdue.

“It’s a real big hot-button issue, whereas before everyone was saying we need to be hard on crime, we need stricter sentences,” said Nolen, a Democrat who commutes to his job from his home in Silver Spring. “Now the country has reversed itself, so politicians will no longer be seen as soft on crime.”

The poll found that a smaller majority of Marylanders, 59 percent, support a policy under consideration in the legislature to increase fines and impose jail time for adults who provide alcohol to teenagers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, middle-aged and older residents are far more likely to support the idea than young people, the poll found.

Harsher penalties for illegal drinking move forward

Hogan has sought to draw a contrast between himself and Democrats this year by backing popular policies that have little chance of getting out of the legislature. Lawmakers are set to adjourn the 90-day session next week without acting on Hogan’s proposals to reform the redistricting process, ease spending mandates or cut taxes for manufacturers and retirees.

The resistance by Democrats doesn’t surprise Harold Ertwine, a 71-year-old Republican in Harford County.

“When you have the same people in there year after year after year, they are untouchable,” said Ertwine, a retired investigator for the Motor Vehicle Administration. He said he wasn’t banking on Hogan’s proposal to reduce taxes on retirement benefits. “What’s the sense of looking forward to something that’s not going to happen?”

Hogan and the legislature did negotiate a $42 billion budget with little drama. And he and the legislature are on track to bipartisan agreement on criminal justice, police reform and other matters.

Maryland’s last GOP governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., came close to Hogan’s popularity, with a 62 percent approval rating roughly a year into office. But Ehrlich’s popularity declined in the second half of his term, and he lost his reelection bid in 2006, which was a good year nationally for Democrats.

Md. Gov. Hogan says he might not support Trump as nominee

Hogan has largely steered clear of national politics, although he supported the presidential campaign of Republican Chris Christie, a close friend and the governor of New Jersey.

Since Christie left the race, Hogan has said he doesn’t plan to attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer and has declined to endorse any of the remaining presidential contenders.

The Post-U-Md. poll was conducted March 30-April 3 among a random sample of 1,503 residents of Maryland reached on landline and cellular telephones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus three percentage points. The survey was conducted in partnership with U-Md.'s Center for American Politics and Citizenship.

Ovetta Wiggins and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.