correction: Earlier versions of this article misstated the year that control of Kentucky’s House of Representatives switched to the GOP. It was in 2016, not 2017.
National Republican groups are weighing major election spending in 2018 in deeply blue Maryland, where they hope the popularity of Gov. Larry Hogan could insulate the party from backlash against President Trump.
The Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association, which sat out much of the 2014 election cycle in Maryland, are eager to help Hogan become the first GOP governor reelected in the state in more than 60 years. Whoever controls the governor's mansion will oversee redistricting after the 2020 Census, potentially shifting the political balance of power in the state for years to come.
Other groups, including GOPAC and the Republican State Leadership Committee, want to help the state party flip five Senate seats to break a Democratic supermajority in that chamber, a goal that appeared possible a year ago based on Hogan's coattails but now seems more daunting in light of major GOP losses in Virginia and elsewhere.
Republicans also will make a major push in 2018 to capture Maryland's 6th Congressional District seat held by outgoing Rep. John Delaney (D). A victory there — which political analysts so far say would be an upset — would double the number of GOP members of Congress from the state.
"Having Governor Hogan at the top of the ticket is a huge boon to Republican candidates because of the positive, popular way he has governed," RSLC President Matt Walter said. "That allows people to talk about issues of their district rather than some nationwide liberal agenda against Trump."
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, recently questioned Hogan's electability in an interview with The Washington Post, and DGA spokesman Jared Leopold said the group will spend heavily to defeat the governor, whom he said will be vulnerable if Marylanders associate him with Trump.
The DGA spent about $2 million on the 2014 governor's race, in which then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown lost to Hogan after what was widely considered a lackluster campaign.
Maryland Democrats have repeatedly tried to link Hogan to the president, even as the governor refused to vote for Trump and has denounced Trump's rhetoric and Republican actions on health care and climate change. State party chair Kathleen Matthews said Democrats will continue to "remind every voter in this state that Governor Hogan failed to stand up and fight for them," citing his lack of criticism of the massive tax overhaul and other federal actions that are unpopular in the state.
But Hogan has maintained historically high approval ratings, garnering 71 percent support in a Gonzalez poll this week, and high popularity even in Democratic strongholds. Other polls have shown a growing number of Maryland Democrats — who outnumber Republicans in the state by a ratio of 2 to 1 — reluctant to support Hogan for a second term at a time when the GOP controls both the White House and Congress.
Democratic leaders in Maryland note that the state's last GOP governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., had strong approval ratings in 2006 — although not as high as Hogan's — but lost that year amid widespread backlash against President George W. Bush.
And GOP candidates in the state watched November's elections in Virginia with more than a little unease.
"It definitely gives you some heartburn as a Republican when you see what just happened," said Del. Christian J. Miele (Baltimore County), who is challenging state Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County). "We're all wondering if 2018 is going to be a continued referendum on the president."
National Republican officials say Hogan and other GOP governors who have built distinctly non-Trump brands — such as Charlie Baker (Mass.), Phil Scott (Vt.) and John Kasich (Ohio) — provide a different kind of blueprint than that used in Virginia's election, when Republican Ed Gillespie lost to Democrat Ralph Northam after defending Confederate monuments and tying undocumented immigrants to criminal gangs.
"We encourage our governors to make the tough decisions to fit the mold of their states," RGA spokesman Jon Thompson said. "If you have a brand that fits your state, you can get elected."
The RGA largely ignored Maryland during the early stages of the 2014 election, although it made a late $1.2 million push for Hogan when his poll numbers shot up. Thompson said the RGA is dedicated to ensuring that Hogan wins reelection, and officials familiar with the group's planning say it will increase its spending in Maryland for 2018.
Additionally, the RNC is transferring $16,000 a month to help the state GOP hire field staff and pay for databases that guide canvassing efforts. In 2014, the RNC waited until the last week of the election to give money in Maryland, forking over $100,000 for voter-turnout efforts.
Democrats have held seven of Maryland's eight congressional seats since then-Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) redrew the voting maps in 2011. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report considers the 6th District seat — whose gerrymandered boundaries are being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court — solidly Democratic in 2018.
But GOP leaders say political groups probably will spend heavily on the race, especially if 2016 nominee Amie Hoeber, who lost to Delaney by 15 points, wins the June 26 primary. (She is competing against first-time candidate Lisa Lloyd.)
The Democratic candidates so far are David J. Trone, who spent a staggering $13.4 million of his own cash in 2016 on a losing U.S. House primary in an adjacent district; Del. Aruna Miller (Montgomery); state Sen. Roger Manno (Montgomery); Nadia Hashimi, a pediatrician and novelist; and retired intelligence officer Andrew Duck.
"All the national Republican folks I've talked to believe District 6 is a winnable race and that Amie is someone who would seem to be able to mount a serious challenge," Maryland Republican Party chair Dirk Haire said. "I expect the national Democratic and Republican parties and their campaign affiliates to be playing in that race as we get closer to the general election."
As for the state Senate races, some national GOP groups view breaking the Democratic supermajority as a significant opportunity — and one of the best ways to boost Hogan's power, because Democrats would lack enough votes to override vetoes.
Democrats have held veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the legislature since 1922. But outside organizations say they are buoyed by Hogan's popularity and by recent success in Kentucky, where they in 2016 helped the GOP seize control of the Bluegrass State's House of Representatives for the first time in nearly 100 years.
"Maryland is of high interest," GOPAC chairman David Avella said. "Given the dynamics in the state now and the fact that Republicans have majorities in nearly two-thirds of state legislatures, we can start playing offense in areas where we haven't played before."
Haire said that despite the Democrats' dominance — in voter registration, the State House and the congressional delegation — Republicans believe that the electorate is politically moderate in key districts and that voters will respond well to legislative candidates who are strongly backed by Hogan.
"The RNC believes Maryland is a middle-temperament state," he said.
Maryland Republicans have targeted six Democratic Senate seats in districts Hogan won overwhelmingly in 2014, where they believe voters have moved to the right in recent years.
They would have to win five of the races and hold their other Senate seats to break the Democratic supermajority.
GOP officials noted that Democrats in Virginia picked up seats almost exclusively in districts that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016. But Clinton also won three of the districts the Maryland GOP is targeting, suggesting Trump could be a drag on their candidates, too.
"The climate isn't great out there politically, but it's nowhere near what I thought it was the day after the [Virginia] election," said Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County). "It just means that the candidates we're running have to work even harder and do a great job campaigning."