“We could not have had a better night,” said Democratic strategist Martha McKenna, citing gains in the legislature, county councils and the biggest county executive races in the state. “I’m hearing no hand-wringing. . . . Everything got better, not worse.”
Party leaders have largely rationalized Hogan’s resounding victory over former NAACP chief Ben Jealous as an anomaly, according to interviews with more than a dozen prominent Democrats and strategists. They attribute his win to the power of incumbency and the governor’s personality, and the fact that Jealous was a first-time candidate with few resources, a small political base and, some say, a progressive message that did not resonate with moderates.
Democrats mostly dismissed or were reluctant to publicly discuss the party’s split between centrists and progressives, which was evident in Hogan’s ability to peel off about 3 in 10 Democratic voters.
“Larry Hogan had a lonely victory, and Ben Jealous had a lonely loss,” said another Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “Ben Jealous lost, and he’s sitting on that island [by] himself. Democrats everywhere else were celebrating wins.”
But most Democrats interviewed acknowledged that the ideological divide remains an undercurrent in Maryland.
Already, party leaders are looking for ways to appeal to both primary voters who endorsed Jealous’s platform of universal health care and higher taxes on the wealthy and the broader November electorate, which preferred Hogan’s more centrist approach.
“The same thing that’s happening nationwide is happening in Maryland,” said Terry Lierman, a former Maryland Democratic Party chairman who said the party must find candidates who can inspire voters with their vision and convince them that they have a reasonable plan to execute it.
“There’s a sad notion in American politics that we can’t dream about our future any more, that we have to be pragmatic for the present,” Lierman said.
As the party searches for that path, Maryland Republicans will be looking for ways to replicate the winning formula they twice found in Hogan, said Patrick O’Keefe, the state GOP executive director.
The party can rely on Hogan’s star power to raise money, and the governor has time to groom a successor to try to replace him four years from now.
“We hope they underestimate us,” O’Keefe said of the Democrats, recalling how Hogan’s upset victory in 2014 caught the majority party by surprise — and sent it reeling. “With the right message and the right environment, that could happen again.”
Hogan sought to flip enough legislative seats to break the supermajority Democrats have held in both chambers for nearly 50 years.
Instead, he faces a Senate with more left-of-center Democrats and a House of Delegates with an even larger supermajority — Democrats picked up at least five seats in that chamber.
Democrats will also lead all of the suburban power centers. Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh (R) lost to Democrat Steuart Pittman, even though Hogan won that county by 40 percentage points. In Howard County, where Hogan’s margin of victory was about 14.5 percent, County Executive Allan H. Kittleman (R) lost to Democrat Calvin Ball.
Democrat Johnny Olszewski Jr. won the executive’s race by a wide margin in Baltimore County, where Hogan captured 62 percent of the vote and vigorously campaigned for the GOP candidate Al Redmer. Democrats Angela Alsobrooks and Marc Elrich won the top jobs in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, respectively, two of the three jurisdictions that Jealous won.
The lopsided results in places like Baltimore County and Anne Arundel show how Jealous struggled to sell progressive ideas that Maryland residents tell pollsters they support: a $15 minimum wage, Medicare-for-all and more education spending.
But Democrats say voters’ willingness to split the ticket suggests that Hogan’s win may have more to do with the strength of his personal brand — and the weaknesses of Jealous’s underfunded campaign.
About 36 percent of voters who considered themselves “somewhat liberal” nonetheless voted for Hogan, according to an estimate based on a survey by the Associated Press and Fox News.
A plurality of Maryland voters, 42 percent, consider themselves “moderate,” according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted in October. Less than 30 percent each consider themselves conservative or liberal, the poll found.
Longtime Democratic leaders, who did little to embrace Jealous after the primary, quickly distanced themselves from the Democratic nominee after his loss.
“His message might have played better in California than it did in Maryland,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) told reporters. “Maryland is a state of middle temperament.”
Jealous’s campaign manager, Travis Tazelaar, said he doubts that any Democrat could have beaten Hogan, even if the party establishment had rallied around the nominee as it did in 2014. The bigger factor, he said, was that Hogan raised millions for his reelection campaign over the past four years, and Jealous had no chance of catching up.
“I would have loved for all of the elected officials to say, ‘The people have spoken and I’m going to be with him,’ ” Tazelaar said. “Does that translate into another $10 million?”
A chasm to bridge?
Two years ago, when Maryland Democratic Party Chair Kathleen Matthews took over, she appointed a liaison to bridge a divide between the progressive and more centrist wings of the party.
Now, she dismisses the idea of an ideological fracture.
“All of our polling showed that all of Ben Jealous’s ideas were mainstream in the party,” she said. “Those definitions of right and left are artificial.”
But moderate Democrats who lost primary fights to progressive newcomers see it differently.
“As long as there is what seems to be a progressive Democratic Party and a Democratic Party, we’re not on the same page,” said Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City), who was defeated in the June primary by a left-leaning delegate from her district.
Conway worries that unless the party comes together, “it will be a while before we regain” the governor’s seat.
She recalled asking her fellow Democrats more than two years ago whom the party planned to support to take on Hogan, whose popularity was growing.
“I kept saying, ‘Who’s our candidate?’ ” Conway said. “They kept saying, ‘We’re working on it.’ I said, ‘Y’all better get moving.’ In the fourth year before going into the election, then we have a candidate. It was too late.”
Pat Lippold, political director for the pro-Jealous SEIU 1199 union, said the Democratic Party needs a “complete revamp” and is more fractured now than it was after Hogan unexpectedly beat then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown in 2014.
Many other Democrats, however, are so convinced that Hogan’s win was inevitable that they say there’s no reason for self-reflection about what went wrong.
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno (Montgomery), one of the five Democrats who lost to Jealous in the primary, said last week that defeating Hogan would have been “a shocker.”
“He was a compelling candidate with enormous resources,” Madaleno said. “Yet the result of the election is he weakened more than I ever thought. Republicans were wiped out everywhere else.”
For Democrats, “there’s no reason for a civil war, so to speak,” he said.
The pro-Hogan conservative activist group Red Maryland seemed to agree, telling supporters in a post-election email to “curb your enthusiasm” about Hogan’s victory.
“Downballot though, Election Day was a complete nightmare,” the group wrote.
Madaleno and others say the party doesn’t have to worry about a long-term ideological shift among voters or ask themselves why voters preferred a Republican, because Hogan ran largely on the strength of his personal brand.
There’s no evidence that star power transferred onto other candidates, they said. In fact, Schuh, Kittleman and nearly all others he endorsed lost.
“He’s not a Republican,” Madaleno said of the governor. “He’s a Hogan.”
Rachel Chason and Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.