Editor’s note: The views expressed in MoCo Politics are the writer’s and do not reflect those of Bethesda Beat staff.
Gov. Larry Hogan is crushing Democratic challenger Ben Jealous in both fundraising and polling. The latest campaign finance reports showed Hogan having a cash balance of $3.3 million as of Oct. 21 (versus Jealous’s balance of $275,337) and the governor’s total fundraising over the cycle at $19 million. And polls are universally favorable for Hogan. The five polls taken since the primary all show double-digit margins for the governor.
Gonzales poll, August: Hogan by 16 percentage points;
Goucher College poll, September: Hogan by 22;
Mason Dixon poll, September: Hogan by 15;
Washington Post poll, October: Hogan by 20; and
Gonzales poll, October: Hogan by 18.
All of this is causing some to ask the unthinkable: Can Hogan actually win in Montgomery County?
The question seems preposterous on its face. MoCo has not voted for a GOP gubernatorial nominee since 1966, when the Republicans ran Baltimore County Executive Spiro Agnew and the Democrats nominated segregationist George P. Mahoney. Appalled by Mahoney’s racism, MoCo Democrats organized a “Democrats for Agnew” group and Agnew scored an upset. (Prince George’s County and Baltimore City voted for Agnew, too.)
Since then, MoCo has reliably voted for Democrats for governor. Here are the county’s results in general elections since 1986.
Of the Republicans’ gubernatorial nominees since 1986, the best performer in MoCo was Baltimore County Del. Ellen Sauerbrey. She lost by less than 6,000 votes statewide in 1994 and received 41 percent of MoCo’s vote. (That was the same year a wave election led to Newt Gingrich being elected speaker of the U.S. House.) By historical standards, Hogan’s MoCo performance in 2014 was unremarkable. His 37 percent of MoCo’s vote was about equal to three other GOP nominees: Sauerbrey in 1998, suburban Baltimore Congressman Bob Ehrlich in 2002 and then-Gov. Ehrlich in 2006.
But let’s dig deeper into Hogan’s 2014 performance. The table below shows his Election Day votes by local area in MoCo.
Hogan won the upcounty areas of Damascus, Poolesville, Dickerson, Sandy Spring, Laytonsville, Derwood, Brookeville and Olney. He received more than 40 percent of the vote in Potomac, Clarksburg, Gaithersburg, North Potomac and Rockville. His overall vote total was doomed by abysmal performances in the downcounty Democratic Crescent, especially in downtown Silver Spring and Takoma Park. It’s very tough to win the county overall when losing so badly in those areas. (Take note, Nancy Floreen.) But the parts of the county north of Route 28 are in Hogan’s reach.
Hogan is a remarkably disciplined politician. He wants voters to know four things about him: He opposes tax hikes, supports jobs and wants to reform Annapolis (for example, by getting rid of gerrymandering) and he is not Donald Trump. That’s about it. He avoids cultural issues of both the right and the left and is stiff-arming the NRA, which is refusing to endorse him. His fiscally conservative, socially agnostic brand of politics appeals to those who miss those influences in the northeastern GOP, including more than a few Democrats. And his gigantic, but nebulous, plans to widen I-270 and the Beltway appeal to some MoCo voters who are perpetually fed up with traffic and wonder why Virginia has done more about it than Maryland.
As for Jealous, he has problems in MoCo. He has raised small amounts of money here compared to past Democratic nominees and MoCo politicians were slow to give him contributions. (Their defense when I asked about that subject is that they were not asked for them!) His proposals for universal pre-kindergarten, single-payer health care and more education spending will be popular with MoCo voters. But Hogan’s counterattack that they will lead to tax hikes will resonate with the many MoCo folks who are fed up with state and county taxes. Overall, the enthusiasm for Jealous in MoCo is uneven and probably closer to 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown’s levels than to the support enjoyed by former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Polls provide little direct guidance about performance in MoCo. The Gonzales poll in August had Jealous leading Hogan in MoCo by 60 percent to 25 percent. The Goucher College poll had Hogan leading Jealous in MoCo and Prince George’s County by 45 percent to 40 percent. The Mason Dixon poll showed Jealous leading Hogan by 49 percent to 41 percent in MoCo. And the Gonzales poll in October showed Hogan and Jealous tied in MoCo at 46 percent. All four of these polls are plagued by low sample size at the county level.
Let’s do a crude exercise. First, let’s state the party percentages of MoCo general election turnout in 2014. In that year, 61 percent of MoCo general election voters were Democrats, 22 percent were Republicans and 17 percent identified with another or no political affiliation. Next, let’s average the partisan support for Hogan and Jealous from the five polls. Hogan averaged 34 percent of support from Democrats, 91 percent from Republicans and 58 percent from others. Jealous averaged 54 percent of support from Democrats, 3 percent from Republicans and 24 percent from others. Finally, let’s multiply those support levels by the partisan percentages of 2014 MoCo general election turnout. The result is a 51 percent to 38 percent lead for Hogan in MoCo with 11 percent undecided.
There are numerous problems with the above simulation. The two biggest are its assumptions that 2018 turnout will look like 2014 and that MoCo Democrats are similar to other Democrats around the state. In fact, Democratic turnout will almost certainly be stronger—maybe much stronger—this year than four years ago and MoCo Democrats tend to be more liberal than Democrats elsewhere in Maryland. That said, the fact that polls consistently show Hogan pulling 30 percent or more support from Democrats is a huge problem for Jealous and a reason why Hogan might be competitive in MoCo.
Given Hogan’s advantages in incumbency, fundraising and voter tax fatigue versus Jealous’s advantage in sheer partisanship, it’s easy to see Hogan at least matching Sauerbrey’s 1994 mark of 41 percent in MoCo. He could even get more. But if Hogan closes to within less than 10 points of Jealous in MoCo, the GOP could be on its way to a historic statewide victory.
Adam Pagnucco is a writer, researcher and consultant who is a former chief of staff at the County Council. He has worked in the labor movement and has had clients in labor, business and politics.