The last time a Republican won a gubernatorial election in Maryland – in 2002 — GOP nominee Robert Ehrlich carried an estimated 55 percent of the state’s independent voters on his way to winning by an overall statewide margin of 52-48 percent.
But in Montgomery County, where then – as now – there were twice as many independent voters as in any of the state’s other major jurisdictions, Ehrlich couldn’t break through the 40 percent vote barrier. He garnered just 39 percent in losing to his 2002 Democratic opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and his vote share in the county only shrank in two subsequent statewide losses to Democrat Martin O’Malley.
Does the first Republican gubernatorial candidate since 1998 not named Ehrlich think he can break the 40 percent hurdle in the state’s most populous jurisdiction this year?
“I do,” replied Larry Hogan, who served as the appointments secretary in Ehrlich’s cabinet. “I hope we’re going to be in the 40s.”’
“We’ve spent quite a bit of time in Montgomery County, and we hope to spend a lot more time here. It’s really critical for us to do better than the average Republican usually does here,” Hogan said in an interview this past weekend during a stop in the county,
It will be a tall order – not simply because of the county’s overwhelmingly Democratic registration edge.
“Hogan is very much an unknown quantity in Montgomery County,” said Bethesda-based independent public opinion analyst Keith Haller, who suggested that Hogan’s recent decision to accept public campaign financing could further limit his ability to get his message out.
“It’s going to take considerable resources to establish a positive profile, to get on a somewhat even plane with [Democratic nominee Anthony] Brown. The Brown campaign has almost unlimited resources to fill in the blanks as to who Larry Hogan is,” Haller noted.
Seeking to move quickly to fill in those blanks before his opponent does, Hogan said he and his campaign van has been in the county a dozen times since his June 24 primary victory, “doing a lot of retail politics.” Most recently he was in Aspen Hill Sunday as the guest of honor at a fundraiser for District 16 House of Delegates candidate Rose Li, one of a handful of Republicans running an active campaign for state or local office in the county this fall.
“We’re reaching out to groups that Republicans typically don’t spend a lot of time with. We’ve spent a lot of time in the Asian community,” said Hogan, who boasted that his Korean-American wife, Yumi, “is going to be the first Asian first lady in Maryland history.”
Hogan is bringing along a policy message that is heavy on achieving economic growth through fiscal restraint, as he seeks to step lightly around the host of recent progressive social policy initiatives – ranging from same-sex marriage to gun control to the so-called Dream Act — that have proved popular with many Montgomery County voters, including independents.
“These social issues are not at all a part of this campaign, because they’ve all been decided. And we don’t intend to revisit any of them,” Hogan declared.
He continued: “I have been completely focused on economic issues. And I think those are things that people in Bethesda and throughout Montgomery County are concerned about – they’re concerned about jobs, they’re concerned about overtaxation and regulation [and], the fact that we’ve lost 8,000 businesses out of the state.”
He even tossed out an issue popular among some Montgomery County Democratic candidates during the recent primary campaign – that the county gets only 20 cents back for every dollar it sends to Annapolis. “The inequity of that is something that I think people are concerned about,” contended Hogan, while stopping short of making any specific promises about how that funding imbalance might be dealt with if he is elected.
While his paid TV ads prior to his primary victory on June 24 accused the O’Malley/Brown administration of never having met a tax “they didn’t like or at least didn’t try to hike,” Hogan is also avoiding firm promises on specific tax rollbacks or other fiscal issues.
“We’re going to try to first cut spending, and then roll back as many of the 40 tax increases to the 2007 levels before the Anthony Brown/Martin O’Malley increases took place,” he pledged.
So far, Hogan seems to be focusing on a broader message similar to that promoted by Change Maryland, a grassroots group he formed in 2011 that has attracted more than 103,000 Facebook followers — half of them Democrats and independents, according to Hogan. In it, he seeks to cast himself as something of anti-politician.
“I’m a business guy who’s never held elective office,” said Hogan, who heads a real estate brokerage firm. He did make an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1992, and then contemplated a race for governor in 2010 before stepping aside for Ehrlich.
“I’m running because I’m fed up with politics and politicians,” continued Hogan, who noted that his father, former U.S. Rep. Lawrence Hogan Sr., was the first Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to call for President Nixon’s impeachment 40 years ago. “People are really frustrated, regardless of their party affiliation. I believe that an overwhelming majority of Marylanders, and a substantial number of Montgomery County voters, would like to see a change in the direction of our state.” He cited polling he has commissioned showing 60 percent of state voters favoring such change – and just half of that number wanting to continue with the state’s current leadership.
Hogan’s polling, however, runs counter to a recent Washington Post survey showing the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Brown, ahead of Hogan by nearly 20 points, 51-33 percent, in a state where Democrats now outnumber Republicans by better than 2-1 statewide.
In vote-rich Montgomery County, the numbers are even more daunting as Hogan seeks to outdo Ehrlich’s showings.
When Ehrlich received 39 percent of the general election vote here in 2002, Montgomery County was 2-1 Democratic in voter registration. More than a decade later, that margin has expanded to nearly 3-1.
That still translates into about 122,000 Republicans in Montgomery – nearly 13 percent of all the Republican in the state. So Hogan can hardly afford to overlook the county as he seeks to secure his base.
But the potential prize for Hogan – and the incentive for him to spend a lot of time in Montgomery County this summer and fall – are the county’s more than 147,000 independent voters, by far the most of any jurisdiction in the state.
With the recent Post poll showing Brown holding the current advantage among independent voters statewide, Haller said that Hogan “has got to hope that these independent voters are still negatively impacted by the economy in their own personal situations, and that they’re connecting the dots between their own discomfort and discontent with the policies and performance of the O’Malley administration.”
“You have this treasure trove of independent voters who have shown a propensity to vote in presidential elections,” said Haller. “The biggest challenge will be for Hogan’s campaign to engender enthusiasm among independent voters in order to get them to the polls come November. Right now, there’s hardly any discernible interest [by] independents in voting in state and local elections.”