At the end of a recent Sabbath dinner at a Montgomery County synagogue, Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt introduced Gov. Larry Hogan by describing his guest’s intense schedule of outreach to Maryland’s Jewish community.
That Tuesday, Hogan (R) had visited a Jewish school in Baltimore. On Friday, before the dinner, he lunched with Jewish leaders in Rockville and visited a Jewish school there. On Sunday, the governor was to host a Hanukkah party at his Annapolis residence.
Joked the rabbi: “And on Monday, I’m taking him to the mikvah,” the ritual bath used for, among other purposes, conversions to the Jewish faith.
Hogan, a Roman Catholic, won’t be switching religions. But he is seeking to capitalize on a trade and cultural mission to Israel in September with a series of events that could help him win over traditionally Democratic Jewish voters and strengthen his chances of reelection in 2018.
Analysts say the governor, whose approval rating halfway through his first term in office is about 70 percent, has an especially good opportunity to pick up support in Montgomery’s Jewish electorate. Though they are more likely to be registered Democrats or independents, those voters are sympathetic to Hogan’s avoidance of hard-line conservative positions on divisive social issues such as abortion and gun control, and to his emphasis on economic management and job creation, these analysts say.
They also welcome the governor’s robust support for Israel, including his vocal opposition to efforts around the nation to encourage boycotts of Israeli products or other economic actions against the Jewish state.
“The Jewish community in Montgomery County is very much in play,” said Ronald J. Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “He’s cultivating relationships that may pay dividends in the next election.”
Some Jewish leaders in the county say Donald Trump could undercut Hogan’s efforts if the president-elect’s administration fails to curb or disavow the open anti-Semitism and intolerance of some of his supporters.
Hogan pointedly distanced himself from Trump during the election, declaring early on that he would not vote for the Republican nominee. (He said he wrote in his father’s name on the ballot.) Their shared party affiliation, however, could still mean negative repercussions for Hogan from voters offended by Trump’s behavior.
“Two years from now, it will take a lot more than a trip to a Jewish day school and a Shabbat dinner to flip people,” said Susan Turnbull, a former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee who sits on the Jewish relations council’s board.
Although Hogan “does present a moderate, nonpartisan image,” Turnbull said, “that’s going to be a lot more difficult when Donald Trump, the head of his party, is president.”
Montgomery’s Jewish population exceeds 100,000, and Jews typically turn out to vote in relatively high numbers. Hogan lost Montgomery by 66,382 votes in 2014, one of only four jurisdictions that he failed to win in his upset victory over then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.
Hogan campaigned heavily in Baltimore County and did well with Jewish voters there — a point he noted to reporters after his meeting with elementary students at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. But Jewish voters in Montgomery are more liberal.
“I won the Jewish community overwhelmingly in Baltimore County by, like, 20 points,” Hogan said. “In Montgomery County, we’ve been doing great outreach. But it’s not really about that. It’s about trying to represent everybody in the state.”
Speaking to a gymnasium full of students at the school, with many of the boys wearing yarmulkes and a large Israeli flag on the wall, Hogan said the goal of his seven-day trip to Israel was to strengthen economic, educational and cultural ties with Maryland. He also spent much of his talk at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, a synagogue in Potomac, describing his visit to the Jewish state — and comparing it to Maryland.
“We’re like Israel. We may be small in geographic size, but we’re very powerful,” Hogan said.
He touted his decision to propose a doubling of spending, from $5 million to $10 million, for a program that provides scholarships for low-income students to attend parochial and private schools.
Parents and other adults in attendance at Charles E. Smith said they were impressed by Hogan’s good humor and easygoing manner.
“He was very personable; he was a delight to listen to,” said Jocelyn Krifcher, a board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, whose youngest daughter is in 12th grade at the school.
But Krifcher, a Democrat, added: “That doesn’t mean that every Democrat is going to turn around and vote for him next time.”
Hogan’s efforts may be aimed at luring campaign donations as well as votes, or at least at denying donations to any potential Democratic opponents. Jewish voters in Montgomery and elsewhere in Maryland are a disproportionately large source of campaign contributions, analysts said.
One potential Democratic challenger to Hogan, Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz, is Jewish and has a political base in the Jewish community in his county. But he isn’t well known elsewhere in the state, including in Montgomery.
Other possible Democratic candidates include Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Rep. John Delaney and state Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (Baltimore).
In a sign of the risks that Trump could present for Hogan, the governor’s administration drew criticism from Jewish leaders earlier this month when it declined to link a recent surge of hate-based incidents in Maryland to Trump’s election.
The controversy began when Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R) responded to a question at a legislative breakfast organized by Jewish leaders by saying that he did not know why such incidents were happening now — a comment that drew a gasp from the audience.
Questioned Friday about the rise in hate-based incidents, Hogan said he saw “a lot of frustration and anger out there in the country.” He did not mention the Trump campaign as a contributor.