The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Economic attitudes in Maryland might decide the governor’s race

Maryland gubernatorial candidate Kelly Schulz received the endorsement of Gov. Larry Hogan on March 22. (Erin Cox/The Washington Post)
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The statewide election cycle has undoubtedly entered its spring awakening. The first television ads have launched, major state players are finalizing their endorsements and cutting checks, and candidates’ dance cards are filling up with various town halls and voter forums.

For the Democratic gubernatorial candidates, given the considerable diversity of their much larger primary electorate, that also means finalizing strategies aimed at winning over voters who hold competing preferences, ideologies and expectations on issue positions. Most candidates have offered broad policy platforms on everything from educational equity to climate change to addressing social justice issues. Some among them are innovative and have the potential to make life better for many residents.

But even if these proposals are celebrated among Democratic primary voters, they might not create a path to a general-election victory. In fact, some Democratic insiders continue to view the past two election cycles as merely a function of the shortcomings of their candidates while refusing to accept the harder truth: Larry Hogan (R) is a two-term governor because his fiscally focused campaign messaging appealed to more voters, including about a third of their own in 2018. And the recent Goucher College Poll, conducted in early March, suggests that economic and pocketbook issues will once again play a significant role in determining the outcome of the election.

For starters, along with public safety and education, voters identified economic issues as a top priority they wanted state government to address. More than half of Maryland residents indicated that they faced major (30 percent) or minor (26 percent) hardships because of recent price increases. Fewer than 20 percent said their economic situation was better than it was last year, while a third said it had gotten worse. Voter attitudes were also split between whether the state government should spend a historic budget surplus driven by federal pandemic relief funds on “increasing funding for public services” or “tax cuts.”

Perhaps most telling is that nearly 40 percent of Democrats and more than half of independent voters — who make up about three-quarters of the electorate — leaned toward cutting taxes. That appears to a be a shift from the past. Previous polls have consistently shown that these same voters consistently believed that the state was spending “too little” to fund public education and even supported increasing taxes to improve public education.

Recent moves by Democrats in the General Assembly demonstrate that they understand the importance of pocketbook concerns, particularly those of working-class Marylanders. This legislative session, their leadership has offered a series of tax cuts to ease the burden of child care and necessities such as diapers and medical equipment. They’ve also proposed a state version of the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides a tax break for companies that hire residents from low-income neighborhoods, military veterans, those with criminal records, the long-term unemployed and individuals with disabilities. Several Democratic lawmakers have also introduced measures aimed directly at affordability issues regarding education and transportation, as well as economic mobility. Most recently, Democrats and Hogan fast-tracked a bill that suspended the state’s gas tax for a month and reached an agreement on tax cuts for low-income families, retirees and small businesses.

But the recent moves of the Maryland General Assembly won’t change the views of the average voter overnight, if at all. The governor is again proposing a broad set of tax cuts and incentives. And polling over the past seven years has consistently found that Hogan holds a clear advantage over Democrats on handling the state’s economy and tax-related issues. Despite expressing some pretty clear economic anxiety, residents maintained a “mostly positive” view of the state economy and don’t appear to blame Hogan for their current financial troubles. Hogan earned strong approval even among those facing hardships over the price increases and those who thought they are “worse” off financially than they were a year ago. For comparison, President Biden’s approval rating dropped significantly among those who express negative economic attitudes.

There is good reason for Democratic candidates to spotlight economic issues and even tax relief in their respective campaigns, particularly if gubernatorial candidate Kelly Schulz wins the Republican primary and effectively positions herself as the continuation of Hogan’s economic policies. Indeed, the best-laid policy plans of the Democratic candidates will again fall flat if average voters don’t trust them to spend their tax dollars wisely. And no one should expect a statewide victory if they can’t win on the economy.