Maryland’s Republican Party is trying to break the veto-proof majority Democrats have held in the state legislature for nearly a century, hoping to use the popularity and fundraising prowess of Gov. Larry Hogan to oust a handful of Senate incumbents and increase the governor’s ability to block legislation he opposes.
Republicans are targeting six seats representing Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Frederick counties and the Eastern Shore, all areas Hogan (R) won by wide margins in 2014.
An increase of five GOP seats in the 47-person chamber would mean Democrats would lack the 29 votes needed to override vetoes, which are one of the main ways a Republican can influence lawmaking in a deep-blue state with strong Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers.
Party leaders have dubbed the effort “Drive for Five” and are recruiting candidates, raising money and counting on Hogan, who plans to seek a second term, to campaign in down-ballot races as well.
“If the Republicans can prevent vetoes from being overridden, it gives Hogan considerably more power than he has now,” said Donald F. Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Administration officials say removing the threat of overrides would force Democratic leaders to compromise more on issues like paid sick leave, which was proposed by Hogan and Democratic legislative leaders this year.
Hogan’s measure, which required sick leave for businesses with at least 50 employees and offered tax incentives for smaller companies to provide the benefit, died in committee.
The legislature instead approved a bill that forces businesses with at least 15 employees to offer sick leave. Hogan has until the end of the month to decide whether to veto it. If he does, Democrats would probably override the veto and enact the law once the legislature reconvenes.
Democratic lawmakers have reversed numerous Hogan vetoes in the past two years, including his attempts to block a renewable-energy bill that he said would increase electricity prices, a bill that sets up a system to rank transportation projects to determine which should get funding priority and legislation to restore voting rights for felons on parole or probation.
Party leaders say that opposition to President Trump should translate into high Democratic turnout in 2018 that will enable them to protect the veto-proof margins they have held in both chambers since 1922.
But Republicans point to splintering within the Democratic Party as a sign that the GOP can build on its 2014 successes, which included picking up nine additional legislative seats — seven in the House of Delegates and two in the Senate — and capturing the governorship in an upset victory over then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D).
The state GOP’s last concerted push to end the veto-proof majority came in 2006, during the administrations of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich (R) and former president George W. Bush (R). It ended with the GOP losing six House seats and the governorship.
Republican officials say they will focus this time on the Senate because the party picked off most of the low-hanging fruit in the House during the last election, and because the GOP would need to win seven House seats to end the supermajority in that chamber.
They are targeting seats held by Sens. John C. Astle and James E. DeGrange Sr., both of Anne Arundel; James Brochin and Katherine A. Klausmeier, of Baltimore County; Ronald N. Young, of Frederick; and James N. Mathias Jr., of Worcester.
Those Democrats won in 2014 by an average of 8.6 points, while voters in their districts backed Hogan by an average of 30.4 points.
Young, who said he hasn’t decided whether to run for reelection, won by the slimmest margin, defeating Republican Corey Stottlemyer by 1.8 points even as Hogan won the district by more than 15 points.
Restaurant franchise owner Craig Giangrande is seeking the Republican nomination this time. He says his profile is similar to Hogan’s in 2014, noting that both are businessmen and neither previously held elected office.
The state GOP has run radio, billboard and social-media ads suggesting Young is too liberal for the district he represents. But the 76-year-old former Frederick mayor stands firmly behind his record, which includes votes to override the governor’s veto of the renewable-energy bill and support for same-sex marriage, stricter gun-control laws and protections for undocumented immigrants.
“I feel I can vote the way I feel is right and win,” Young said. “If that makes me more vulnerable, I can handle that.”
Klausmeier, 67, won reelection by 22.6 points in 2014, the widest margin among the six Democrats. But Hogan won that district by 36.8 points.
Del. Christian Miele (R-Baltimore County), a first-term lawmaker, is considering a run for Klausmeier’s seat. He plans to hold a fundraiser with Hogan in June.
State party chairman Dick Haire said the governor will be “far more actively engaged in legislative races” than he was during the 2016 election cycle, when his campaigning for congressional candidates was limited.
“The governor’s interests and our targeted seats are 100 percent aligned,” Haire said.
Mathias, a former Ocean City mayor who has served in the legislature since 2006, said he is “absolutely” running for reelection. He defeated Republican Mike McDermott by 3.4 points in 2014, but Hogan won the district by 41 points.
The 65-year-old lawmaker stood with the governor when he issued a controversial executive order requiring schools to start after Labor Day. He also voted to override Hogan’s veto of the renewable-energy bill, a move that drew attacks from the state GOP.
First-term Del. Mary Beth Carozza (Worcester) said she might seek the Republican nomination to challenge Mathias.
“I believe real and lasting change only comes with two terms for the governor and reinforcement from the House and Senate,” she said.
During the state GOP’s spring convention in late April, Haire played part of a radio interview in which Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said he thinks Republicans are “going to pick up a couple of seats” in his chamber next year and that Brochin appeared to be especially vulnerable.
“It’ll be hard for a Democrat to hold onto that seat,” Miller said in the interview.
Miller’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Democrats say the narrow Senate victories in 2014 proved that incumbents can withstand a challenge even in a down year for the party, which at the time lacked a strong ground game and a gubernatorial candidate who generated widespread voter enthusiasm.
Party chairwoman Kathleen Matthews said grass-roots activists will be united and focused this cycle on “challenging the Trump-Hogan agenda.”
But GOP officials are convinced that they can win the targeted seats with strong turnout among Republicans and independents. They hope to energize those voters with issue-related advertising during and around the next legislative session, a practice that is allowed under language added to state regulations in 2013.
The Republicans didn’t have enough money for such efforts during the 2014 election cycle. This year, thanks to a burst of fundraising that began after Hogan’s election, the party was able to do things like sponsor billboards encouraging residents to tell Astle and Klausmeier to “stop opposing Governor Hogan” and his priorities.
The GOP says it is organizing rapid-response teams to hold rallies and counter-demonstrations throughout the state and is aggressively growing its social-media presence.
More than 16,600 people shared, liked or commented on the state party’s Facebook page during the last week of the legislative session, giving it 17 times the level of engagement as the state Democrats’ page and making it the most successful state-party page in the country during that span, according to Facebook analytics data provided by party officials.
Howard Ernst, a political-science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, said the success of the GOP effort will hinge largely on “the size of Governor Hogan’s coattails.”
“The wild card in the race is the anti-Trump backlash,” he said. “Governor Hogan has successfully insulated himself from Trump so far, but time will tell if he can continue.”