Maryland’s normally underdog Republican Party has nearly kept pace with state Democrats in fundraising over the past 19 months, setting up what experts predict could be an unusually competitive 2018 election cycle.
After a burst of donations following the election of Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Republicans slowed their intake considerably. But the party is still raising much more than it had in the past, and it has been able to clear away long-standing debt.
“Larry Hogan has been a godsend to the GOP in Maryland,” said Melissa Deckman, chair of Washington College’s political-science department. “His surprising win in 2014 made Republicans really enthusiastic and willing to open their wallets in a way they weren’t willing to before.”
The Republican State Central Committee has reported more than $1.5 million in contributions since November 2014, compared with about $807,000 for the Democratic State Central Committee.
More than half of the GOP haul came in the two months after Hogan won the governorship. The central committee reported about $300,000 for the rest of 2015, compared with about $353,000 for the Democratic committee over the same period. This year, the GOP reported $378,000 in contributions through the end of last month, compared with $437,000 for the Democrats.
In contrast, the Democrats raised nearly twice what the Republicans brought in during the 2012 presidential election cycle, and they more than quadrupled the GOP total from 2008.
Political analysts say that the financial upswing is unlikely to influence the outcome of November’s congressional and presidential elections but that it bodes well for elections two years from now, when the governorship and many General Assembly seats will be up for grabs.
Maryland’s Democratic Party still has a significant advantage in terms of cash on hand, reporting nearly $351,000 for federal elections at the end of July, compared with $77,866 for the GOP.
Deckman said Democratic donors in the state may be focused this year on giving to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the political action committees that support her, rather than to their state party.
“There’s competition for their money,” Deckman said.
Separate from the parties, Maryland Democrats on the ballot in November have raised far more money than their Republican opponents. For example, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D), a heavy favorite to win the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), has reported $7.8 million in contributions, compared with $897,000 for the Republican nominee, state House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (Baltimore County).
Republicans say they are targeting Rep. John Delaney (D) and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D) as incumbents who are most vulnerable, in part because they represent two of the state’s most politically mixed districts.
But Delaney has raised $1.1 million for his 2016 campaign, more than twice the $419,000 reported by Republican challenger Amie Hoeber. And Ruppersberger’s war chest of $804,000 dwarfs the $93,000 that Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore County) has raised for his effort to win the congressional seat.
The state GOP is using its improved financial standing to set up new offices throughout Maryland and to hire more staff members to rally supporters for November.
“We’re spending money on political activities, something the party hasn’t done a lot of in the past,” party executive director Joe Cluster said.
He said the state GOP was $150,000 in debt and had just $10,000 in the bank when he took the helm in 2013.
“We’re doing much better,” he said. “We’re already at the amount we raised for all of last year, and we haven’t had our major dinner yet.”
Last year, the party booked Donald Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, for the dinner. The event was a wild success, netting about $100,000. This year, the featured guest will be Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a nationally known union adversary. Cluster said he expects to raise about $55,000.
The party took in about $100,000 from fundraising events at last month’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, a relatively small amount that Cluster attributed in part to Hogan’s decision not to attend the convention. The governor, who is extremely popular in Maryland across party lines, has made no secret of his disdain for Trump and says he will not vote for him in November.
“It would have been better financially to have him there,” Cluster said. “But we support the governor 100 percent in whatever he does.”
After the GOP’s 2014 surge, Maryland’s Democratic Party adjusted its approach to elections and fundraising, party leaders said. Officials are focusing more on community outreach and registering voters who are likely to support Democrats, and they are largely ditching traditional sit-down fundraising dinners in favor of events that allow people to mingle.
“We find that our crowd likes more of a social event focused on good music and moving around,” party chairman D. Bruce Poole said. “It’s all about energy and buzz. It’s appealing to a younger crowd and working really well.”
John Bullock, an associate professor of political science at Towson University, said both parties appear to be in a strong position for 2018.
“Folks were energized and more excited on the Republican side in the last election,” he said. “But I think things have hit a more natural equilibrium, and the Democrats have energized themselves to be more competitive for 2018.”