Even with Democrats outnumbering Republicans more than 3-1 in Montgomery County, the county’s new GOP chairman can see Gov. Larry Hogan capturing up to 45 percent of the vote here in next year’s re-election bid.
Hogan garnered 37 percent of the Montgomery County vote in 2014, close to the high-water mark for a statewide Republican candidate in Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction over the past two decades.
“I think we can exceed that number,” Mark Uncapher said in an interview late last week—a few days after he narrowly ousted the prior Montgomery County Republican Central Committee chairman, Dick Jurgena.
The last statewide GOP nominee to break 40 percent in Montgomery was Ellen Sauerbrey, who won 41 percent in narrowly losing the 1994 gubernatorial race to Democrat Parris Glendening. The Democratic registration edge in the county at the time was a little less than 2-1.
Uncapher, a Bethesda resident, has been secretary of the Maryland Republican Party since late last year.
He said that “based on the polling data I’ve seen across the board in the state, it is a reasonable expectation for [Hogan] to be able to poll about 25 percent—a minimum of 20 percent—of the Democratic vote.” The data also show Hogan pulling 50 to 60 percent of the independent vote and about 90 percent of registered Republicans across the state, he said.
Those figures “kick the Montgomery County vote to about 40 to 45 percent” for Hogan, Uncapher said, adding: “The challenge in this election is that the Democrats will try and make it sort of a referendum on the White House and national issues, but I think that’s largely a reflection of the fact that they see not much in the way of an opportunity to run directly against Larry Hogan.”
Uncapher, who chaired the county Republican committee from 2008 to 2013, begins his second stint as the county GOP has struggled to remain relevant locally: No one running on the Republican ticket has been elected to a state legislative or county office since 2002. As of the end of October, there were 116,500 Republicans in the county—down from more than 125,000 from five years ago. (There are now 379,000 registered Democrats.)
Within the Maryland GOP, the Montgomery County party retains clout as home to the third largest concentration of registered Republicans among the 24 state’s major jurisdictions. Only Baltimore County, with 143,000, and Anne Arundel County, with 135,000, have more.
“Montgomery County is going to be the pivot point in this coming election,” Michael Higgs, who succeeded Uncapher as county Republican chair in 2013, declared in nominating Uncapher as chair at last week’s central committee meeting.
Higgs, now first vice chairman of the state party, later added, “Can we get the Republicans, the independents, the Democrats who like Gov. Hogan but really don’t like what we’re seeing from our president to come out there and pull the lever for Gov. Hogan—and then do their Democrat thing down the rest of the slate?”
Implicit in Higgs’ comments was pessimism about whether crossover voters for Hogan can be convinced to support Republicans at the local level in Montgomery in 2018.
“I think I would characterize it as realism,” Uncapher responded when asked about Higgs’ remarks. “The challenge that the down-ballot candidates will have in those areas that are historically more competitive will be to do the same 20 to 25 percent of the Democratic vote that Larry Hogan can. And that will require them to have campaigns that get out and make their case.”
Uncapher pointed to County Council District 2, which covers much of the northern portion of the county. It’s where Jurgena, a Darnestown resident, was the party’s candidate against Democratic incumbent Craig Rice of Germantown in 2014.
“Dick spent about $1,000. It was, as they say, a personal treasurer campaign,” Uncapher said. “He got 40 percent of the vote. I think that is the baseline vote in that district for a Republican candidate.”
“I’m not faulting him,” Uncapher said of Jurgena, adding, “A candidate who appeals to crossover voters and has a more grassroots campaign … has the opportunity to be that much more competitive.”
Two Republicans—teacher Edward Amatetti of Gaithersburg and management consultant Tom Ferleman of Germantown—are competing for the party’s 2018 nomination in District 2.
That district overlaps with large portions of state legislative Districts 14 and 15, which Jurgena—in a statement posted on the central committee website last month—said had been identified by the Maryland Republican Party as “providing the best opportunities to elect Republicans.” He added that the state GOP is “willing to provide support.”
Uncapher said the state Republican Party has yet to commit resources to the legislative District 14 and 15 races, but support is possible later, depending on how the contests develop next year. District 14 covers the northeast section of the county; District 15 extends from Potomac to the Frederick County line.
“The state party and the Senate [Republican] caucus have identified, across the state, a number of districts that Larry Hogan carried in 2014 by pretty healthy margins,” Uncapher said. “[Districts] 14 and 15 are not among those districts. They’re not districts where Larry Hogan got over 60 percent of the vote.” Hogan received 49 and 48 percent of the vote in Districts 14 and 15, respectively, according to the state Board of Elections.
But Uncapher added, “We have put challengers in those districts, and if we do what we need to do, at some point next fall, I would expect to have additional resources … to supplement what we do as a local party.”
So far, the GOP has fielded challengers to Democratic incumbents Craig Zucker of Brookeville and Brian Feldman of Potomac in those two districts, while lining up candidates for two of the delegate seats up in District 15 and one in District 14. This stands in contrast to the county’s remaining six legislative districts, where no candidates have yet filed.
Meanwhile, Uncapher characterized the 6th Congressional District, where Democratic incumbent John Delaney is passing up a chance at re-election to mount a longshot bid for the presidency, as “one of the real priorities that we have” in 2018.
Uncapher said the county Republican committee will adhere to past practice and not endorse a candidate in the primary, but added, “I expect that a very strongly competitive candidate will be coming out of that primary, and we will be working with he or she to focus on that [race].” In the last off-year election in 2014, Republican challenger Dan Bongino came close to toppling Delaney.
About one-third of Montgomery County voters live in District 6, which Uncapher said covers an area of the county more favorable to Republicans. “If you look at where District 6 is within Montgomery County, I think there are a lot of opportunities,” he said.
Potomac resident Amie Hoeber appears to be the early frontrunner in the field of four candidates in the District 6 Republican primary. Hoeber won a crowded primary in 2016, then lost to Delaney in the general election.
For the past year, she served as finance chairman of the Montgomery County central committee. She was named to the post by Jurgena, who took heat from several conservatives within the committee unhappy about some of the positions that Hoeber took during the 2016 campaign—particularly her stance in favor of abortion rights.
Would that controversy cause hesitation within the central committee about aiding Hoeber if she is the 2018 Republican nominee?
“I give Amie a lot of credit for getting involved in the party and building relationships in serving as finance chair,” Uncapher said. “That may have brought her into sort of the internal back and forth, but I think many more members of the central committee have that much more of a personal relationship with her because of her getting involved.”
He continued: “There are some people who have differences of opinion with her on issues. It is what it is. As I’ve said, I think people ought to be authentic to what their actual views are. But she is unquestionably one of the very strong candidates” for the congressional nomination.
In his successful challenge against Jurgena, Uncapher—who does not expect to repeat his previous five-year stint as chair this time around—complained about what he characterized as the diminished status of the local party’s precinct organization.
He also criticized the previous central committee leadership for failing to do more to get supporters of now-President Donald Trump involved following the 2016 election—notwithstanding Trump’s polling less than 20 percent of the vote in Montgomery County.
“There was a cadre of very engaged activists who, quite frankly, hadn’t participated in Republican Party activities or functions in the past,” he said in last week’s interview. “[They] were energized by the Trump campaign, but, by and large, have not been involved actively since then.”
Asked if greater involvement by Trump supporters in the local party could complicate the task of attracting crossover votes from Democrats and independents, Uncapher said: “Both parties are coalitions of many, many different interests that agree on some things and disagree on other things. If they can agree most of the time, then that’s what makes a coalition work.
“We certainly recognize there’s no one single Republican point of view—but, to be clear, that’s also very true of the Democratic Party.”