Eric Cortellessa is the digital editor of the Washington Monthly.
Larry Hogan made history Tuesday night when he became Maryland’s first Republican governor to win reelection since 1954. But his party failed in its ambitious plan to take away the Democrats’ veto-proof majority in the state Senate. Overall, this means that Maryland’s political dynamic will remain largely the same in Hogan’s second term as it was in his first. But it also means that, in Maryland, the Trump effect was bigger than the Hogan effect.
Hogan has vetoed bills to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions, “ban the box” on college and university applications, decriminalize possession of marijuana paraphernalia and expand paid sick leave. Those vetoes were overridden by the General Assembly. The state GOP’s failure Tuesday to break the Democrats’ supermajority — Republicans gained only one Senate seat and lost some in the House — shows that Hogan’s popularity did not translate into down-ballot Republican victories.
Perhaps the largest statewide referendum on President Trump was the attorney general’s race. The Democratic incumbent, Brian E. Frosh, ran on his success in suing the administration over its travel ban and rollback of environmental regulations. His opponent, Craig Wolf, castigated those lawsuits as a waste of taxpayer money. Frosh won with 64 percent of the vote. Hogan earned 8 percentage points less support from the Maryland public.
Hogan’s victory was fueled by one of the largest fundraising drives of any gubernatorial candidate in history. Outraising his opponent, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous, 3 to 1, Hogan dominated the airwaves in the final weeks, having built up a campaign war chest of more than $19 million with nearly $5 million in new donations in the past several months. With all that cash, Hogan defined Jealous early. “He lost the thing in July,” former Maryland secretary of state John Willis told me. Jealous, a former president of the NAACP, never recovered from the governor labeling him a socialist who would hurt Maryland’s business climate.
Hogan seems to have learned some valuable tactical lessons from working for Maryland’s last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, who lost his reelection bid in 2006. One of Ehrlich’s biggest mistakes was to overtly challenge the Democrats on every issue. That is probably one reason Hogan allowed some modestly progressive bills to pass without his signature, such as granting lesbian couples equal access to fertility treatments and allowing transgender individuals to change the gender on their birth certificates.
By being less partisan than Ehrlich in tone, Hogan has been deeply effective at projecting himself as a moderate even as his veto record reveals him to be far more of a conventional conservative. He didn’t attend the 2016 Republican National Convention and wrote his father’s name on the ballot instead of Trump. He has stayed away from certain hot-button issues, including health care and guns. It’s telling that the National Rifle Assocation endorsed Hogan four years ago but didn’t this year.
Ehrlich showed Hogan not to move too far to the right too soon. But now that he will not have to face Maryland voters again — as governor, he is limited to two terms — he will likely amplify his right-wing impulses with an eye toward the national stage. He has shown himself to be comfortable with the modern Republican Party in myriad ways — from thwarting the restoration of felon voting rights to blocking Syrian refugees from resettling in Maryland. If he has larger ambitions, the only direction for him to move is rightward.
Because of significant voter dissatisfaction with Trump and the modern GOP, few Republican candidates could have had Hogan’s success in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. The Democratic supermajority in Annapolis will rein in the governor’s ability to carry out the more hard-right policies he claims to rise above. But expect him to find other ways to sell himself as a bona fide conservative to a Republican Party moving increasingly to the right.
“I’m the most bipartisan governor,” Hogan recently said. “I don’t even like to talk about parties.” During the campaign, he fought against being called a Republican. Now that he has been reelected, he may start to embrace that label emphatically.