The Political Brilliance (and Luck) of Larry Hogan

John O. Sullivan

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

“At the end of a prize fight, you look at the guy dancing around, and that’s who won” – Josh Lyman, (S4E16 “Red Haven’s on Fire”)

Imagine it’s early August 2014, you’re a resident of Maryland. After an unexpectedly vigorous primary season for both parties, there is a gubernatorial battle reaching a fever pitch.  On one hand, you have Anthony Brown, a Democrat and faithful Lieutenant Governor who promises 4 to 8 more years of the status quo, burdened by an increasingly unpopular predecessor and a difficult roll out of Obamacare that was partially, but not entirely, his fault. On the other hand, Larry Hogan, a political breath of fresh air. A Republican with no prior history in elected office, but considerable credentials, carrying as his shield an absolute refusal to discuss social issues. Maryland Democrats have a two-to-one registration advantage. Hogan might be exciting for Conservatives and have Independent draw but there’s no way he could overcome that kind of deficit, right?

Fast forward to November. Across the nation, Democrats are getting caught with their pants down. Its an absolute tidal wave in favor of the conservative end of the spectrum. And you don’t even need to stay up that late to find Larry Hogan has been declared the next governor of Maryland, because he won in a 51-47 blowout . The next morning, the Washington Post would call it a “stunning upset,” and they would be right.

So let’s talk numbers. In many ways, now-Governor Hogan’s victory was even more of a “stunning upset” than the Washington Post said. As previously stated, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in Maryland. In Maryland, the Governor is popularly elected. So there’s no need to worry about those pesky precincts or electors (Article 2 section 3 of the Maryland Constitution) and it’s all about running up the score. The foundation of victory for a Democrat seeking the governor’s mansion or any statewide office is laid in Baltimore City, Prince George’s County, Montgomery County, where Democrats steeply outnumber Republicans (roughly 10-1 in Baltimore, 9-1 in PG Co., 3-1 in Montgomery Co.). Registered Democrats from those three areas alone outnumber all registered Republicans in the state. Those areas are also the most densely populated in the state, (Maryland is already one of the most densely populated states in the Union), containing in less than one tenth of the state’s area almost half of the state’s population, which means Democrats can be very efficient in their campaigning; pouring most of their money, resources, volunteers, and candidate time into those three jurisdictions in order to run up the vote count. Curiously, however, it seems winning in just those three precincts isn’t enough to guarantee victory for a Democrat (the last time a Democrat won only those three she lost in a 52-48 blowout) so Democrats for statewide office also reach out to Charles and Howard Counties to try and put the icing on the cake of victory. And usually it works. In both gubernatorial and U.S Senate elections since 1994, when the Democrat wins the three core areas AND at least one additional county, they’ve won every time (Glendenning ‘98, O’Malley ‘06, O’Malley ‘10), That is, until the evening of November 4th, 2014.

So how did Larry Hogan win? As with many things, only the talking television heads will claim to know exactly the causes of such an event. Certainly luck had a part to play, Hogan got lucky with the opponent and political climate of a lifetime. I suggest this: increasingly unpopular outgoing Governor Martin O’Malley dragged down his Lt. Governor Anthony Brown. In addition, many Democrats were left demoralized and dissatisfied after the thwarted insurgent primary candidacy by Delegate Heather Mizeur. Next, Larry Hogan absolutely refused to touch social issues in his campaign. The message was simple: tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. That created a unique appeal across the spectrum of Republicans and Independents and caused a huge turnout surge for those segments against an absolute failure for Democrats to get out the vote. Finally, as the race showed to be tightening in the days leading up to election, a surge of out-of-state money and ad time put the final nail in the coffin of Anthony Brown’s gubernatorial ambitions.

In the modern age of mass media and message calendars and image plans, I have often wondered to what degree the image of a candidate I am presented matched the candidates actual beliefs in views. I would be surprised if I am alone in that question. No one but Governor Hogan can know exactly where his personal views end and his political persona begins. But we know one thing for sure, Governor Hogan wants no part of any social issues if he doesn’t have to. These days, the club with which the Left has (with some success) bludgeoned the right is social issues. When Democrats are able to put Republicans on the wrong side of public opinion with such topics as minority issues, abortion, and same-sex marriage, they energize the left and scare Independents, generally leading to Democrat victories (only in districts where this is predisposed to work). In his 2014 campaign, Gov. Hogan absolutely refused to go there. Hence, the political brilliance of Larry Hogan. The biggest, possibly only, tool in Lt. Gov Brown’s bag was to put Hogan on the wrong side of issues that a deep-blue Maryland would be ready to accept, and Hogan wasn’t going to play that game.

Governor Hogan also has recent historical precedent to guide him as he moves through his tenure towards re-election. In 2006, Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich was seeking re-election against then-Mayor of Baltimore Martin O’Malley. Gov. Ehrlich, much like Gov. Hogan, won his first term against a Democratic Lt. Gov who was serving under an increasingly unpopular Democratic governor, and also like Gov. Hogan, styled himself as a pro-business moderate. However Gov. Ehrlich fell into several traps which Gov. Hogan has thus far avoided. Firstly, Ehrlich allowed himself to be labeled not just as pro business, but as a corporate shill when he vetoed a bill that would force Wal-Mart to spend more on healthcare for their Maryland employees. Wal-Mart had hosted a fundraiser for Ehrlich the previous year, and these circumstances drew the ire of both Democratic primary candidates and ALF-CIO President John Sweeney who said Governor Ehrlich should be ashamed for literally standing with big corporate interests rather than Maryland’s working families.” Gov. Hogan, by contrast, has mainly, but not exclusively,  targeted his administrations tax relief towards everyday Marylanders and true small businesses, rather than large corporate entities. Most notably, his administration has made widespread reductions in fees for government services, ranging from fees on replacement birth certificates to the wildly popular lowering of the Bay Bridge toll.He also avoided getting combative with the Democrat-dominated general legislature. At the end of the year’s legislative session, he let many bills (84) become law without his signature, while only formally vetoing 7. Rather than succumbing to veto-bait and drawing the inevitable ire and “obstructionist executive fiat” attacks, he allowed most of the bills he disagreed with become law without a fight, a wise move considering that Democrats still hold veto-proof super-majorities in both houses of the Maryland General Legislature.

He also gets the “sold his soul to the devil” kind of luck at seemingly every opportunity. Republican in a Blue State? Here, have a seemingly incompetent and unpopular LG to run against. Liken seasoned legislators to college spring breakers, and it turns out no one cares. And earlier this year, in a week where the General Assembly voted to override multiple controversial Hogan vetoes from the previous year, Mother Nature intervened, knocking the vetoes off the front page, replacing them with a historic Blizzard and Governor Hogan looking very commanding and Governor-y, wearing the literal and metaphorical Chief Executive windbreaker.

Statehouse after Snow
The Statehouse after Maryland’s January Blizzard. Photo Credit: Myself

All that aside, when he does do battle with the legislative branch, Governor Hogan does so in a highly intelligent manner. In June of last year, Governor Hogan made good on one of his campaign promises by cancelling the Baltimore Red Line, a long-awaited metro rail project that would run East/West in and out of Baltimore City into Howard County along the I-70/Rt. 40 corridor. He cited concerns that the project was going to become an expensive boondoggle with little actual impact on jobs or congestion (even though it had been projected for tens of thousands of daily riders). However, with a price tag of 2.3 Billion over 6 years, Governor Hogans aversion is understandable. But rather than flatly deny the further development of metro rail in Maryland, the governor allowed the Purple line, an expansion of the DC metro in Montgomery and Prince George Counties, to go forward, albeit in a diminished form. He also announced expansions and improvements to Baltimore’s bus system, and increased the pace of repairs and new construction for pavement projects, including local roads and bridges. On one hand, it could be easy to construe these actions as Governor Hogan pushing money away from projects that he had made political targets of and towards things his own supporters (rural and suburban voters) would benefit from the most. However, his actions actually seemed to have mollified all but a very vocal minority. Those in the Capital Region got to keep the Purple line, those in rural and suburban districts are getting road and bridge repairs, and Baltimore is getting a bus expansion. Gov. Hogan once again showed off his instincts and sent most of the people are going home mostly happy, though the cancellation of the Red Line did eventually lead to a pro-Red Line PAC and a lawsuit against Governor Hogan filed by a coalition of groups including the Maryland ACLU and the NAACP.

Governor Hogan again displayed his political smarts, in mid-June of this year, when he went even further than not endorsing presumptive GOP nominee, went right ahead and said he would not vote for Trump in November. This was a remarkably bold move, considering that Trump won Maryland’s primary with an impressive 54.5% of the vote and a clean sweep of the available delegates. Gov. Hogan knew this, that the majority of the members of his party that showed up on April 26th disagreed with him, and still he spoke out against Trump. To give non-Marylanders a bit of insight, this anti-Trump announcement from Governor Hogan came after several weeks of a dogged, if somewhat silly (but apparently effective), pursuit on both the local and national level from the Democratic Party. Representative John Delaney, a Democrat representing Maryland’s 6th Congressional District rented a very compelling mobile billboard calling out Governor Hogans as-then silent on Trump, reading: “Silence is an Endorsement.” The aforementioned billboard also featured the address of this website which is clearly little more than a campaign tool for Rep. John Delaney. Putting aside discussions of Rep. Delaney’s moves to hold his own seat and possible aspirations for the Governor’s Mansion, this was also coordinated with a campaign by the Democratic Governor’s Association to accost Republican governors who supported trump or who had yet not committed either for or against Trump. It is hard to say how effective this project was, as since its launch only five of the so called “Silent 9 have made statements, but my guess would be “largely ineffective,” not unlike the Democratic Governor’s Association itself.

Recent history however, once again validates Governor Hogan’s moves. In 2006, one of the main reasons for Governor Ehrlich’s loss to Martin O’Malley was the unpopularity of President George W. Bush. As the 2006 election approached, Ehrlich’s popularity and job approval began to decline among Democrats and Independents, both because of and mimicking what was happening on the national stage at that time. Gov. Ehrlich tried to attack O’Malley over his record on Law and Order issues in Baltimore but it was too little, too late. Ehrlich’s attempts to dodge President Bush in public were insufficient to separate him from W., especially when it was known that Bush was still helping Ehrlich raise money for the ongoing gubernatorial campaign, as well as their past and highly publicized relationship. In the end, Gov. Ehrlich was largely the victim of reprisals against Bush. He could avoid neither the appearance that he was in the President’s pocket nor the ripple effects of the President’s increasing unpopularity and public outcry over the war in the middle east. Polling done for AP after the election showed that 2 out of 3 voters disagreed with the war and over half disapproved of Bush’s overall job performance, and while tying himself to Bush may have helped Ehrlich win the governor’s mansion in ‘02, it eventually sank his reelection in ‘06.

So why, knowing that it was largely possible that over half of his party disagreed with him, would Governor Hogan publicly oppose Trump? Almost all of his colleagues are openly supporting Trump, including purple-state Governors Scott of Florida, Rauner of Illinois, LePage of Maine, Christie of New Jersey. In fact, Governor Hogan is in a small club, only he, Governor Snyder of Michigan, and Governor Kasich have spoken out publicly against Hogan.

Governor Hogan’s aim is to avoid the same national-politics curse that ended Ehrlich’s public life. At first glance it seems foolish at best, stupid at worst. But I still call it brilliant. Governor Hogan isn’t up for reelection until 2018, but I would be downright shocked if Gov. Hogan’s disparagement of Trump is still an issue two years from now. Only one of two things will happen in the next few months: Trump will lose, and Gov. Hogan will only gain from his early refusal of Trump’s candidacy. Alternately, Trump may yet still win, as unlikely as that seems now, and either people will forget Governor Hogan’s words as inconsequential, or the Republic will fall resulting in anarchy and there will be no need to elect a Governor of Maryland anyway.In a traditionally blue state where, again, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, Gov. Hogan’s only route for re-election is to win over Independents en masse and keep Democrats at home, and with his actions he may well achieve that. He once again is showing his brilliant political instincts by not giving his opponents anything to latch onto while simultaneously keeping Independents solidly in his column.

One final time I say, only Governor Hogan can know where his true beliefs end and where his public face begins, but Governor Hogan has at least shown us he is not likely to be outwitted by the Maryland Democrat’s “business as usual” political playbook.

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