Larry Hogan Can Be Beat

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 5, 2016.
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When Labor Secretary Tom Perez announced in mid-December that he was jumping into the race for Democratic National Committee chair, analysts immediately began to speculate what his motivations could be for challenging Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. Ellison had already been in the race for a month, and had received diverse endorsements from the AFL-CIO, Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer, among many others. Was the White House putting Perez up to this, nervous about a key Sanders supporter leading the party? Was this about preserving support from billionaire donors like Haim Saban, who said electing Ellison would be a “disaster” for Democrats?

And, wait, wasn’t Perez—a former Maryland state official and a longtime resident of the D.C. suburbs—considering a 2018 run against Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan? Wouldn’t this rising political star’s career be better served by making a blue state blue again?

Last month, when I started asking people around D.C. this question, I got two somewhat contradictory responses. First, I’d invariably be asked if I had seen Larry Hogan’s approval ratings. Yes, I knew that the Republican governor currently boasted a 71 percent approval—his popularity was something The Washington Postreminded readers of again and again. But when I’d ask them what they thought Hogan’s biggest accomplishments were, their responses would quickly become vague. “Look … he can’t be beat,” they’d insist. “He’s moderate and just too well-liked.”

While I’d never claim that unseating an incumbent governor with high polling would be easy, Hogan’s alleged inevitability needs a reality check. Maryland is a state where Hillary Clinton swept the floor by 26 points. It’s a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two-to-one. Let’s be clear: Larry Hogan can be beat.

Hogan won the governorship in 2014 under uniquely favorable circumstances. His six-point victory was facilitated in part by Democrats taking the race for granted: They waged a pitifully weak campaign effort for an uninspiring and often invisible candidate. The result was a precipitous decrease in statewide voter turnout, particularly in counties that are critical for Democratic wins. Baltimore City turned out 36 percent of voters in 2014, 9 percent fewer than in 2010. Likewise, in Prince George’s County, turnout dropped by 7 percent, and in Montgomery County, by 12 percent.

There’s good reason to suspect the 2018 campaign season will not much resemble the generally muted 2014 contest. For starters, there’s a man named Donald Trump who’s set to take over the White House later this month. He’ll be starting his presidency with a stunningly low approval rating, and the 2018 midterms will be the first opportunity Americans generally, and Democrats particularly, will have to express their displeasure at the ballot box. What’s more, with the federal government under GOP control, Democrats will be focusing more on winning state governments than they have in the recent past. Thirty-six gubernatorial seats up are for grabs in 2018, and as political writer Greg Sargent pointed out, many states in which Republicans are defending governorships are ones that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton recently won.

Larry Hogan might be a moderate Republican, but he’s still a Republican. That means progressives have an opportunity to link his Maryland agenda to Trump’s national program—and whatever chaos it’s likely to cause. Hogan himself has described Chris Christie and Vice President-elect Mike Pence as his “closest friends” among governors. Yes, Hogan said he would not vote for Trump—a shrewd political calculation that resonated with his liberal state (Massachusetts’s GOP Governor Charlie Baker did the same thing)—but Hogan has hardly been denouncing Trump, either. On the contrary, Hogan congratulated him on his win, and made clear the president-elect would be welcome in Maryland. A few weeks after the election Hogan even said, “Everyone ought to just take a deep breath and give the new administration a chance.”

If anything, Hogan is more vulnerable to an anti-Trump backlash than the far-right, Trumpist wing of his party. The hard core of GOP elected officials usually represent safe red districts. However popular he may be, Hogan is trying to keep his balance in a state that tilts far to the left.

Hogan recognizes his political vulnerability. Clinton and newly elected Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen both performed well in Maryland this past November, including in suburban counties that Hogan won in 2014. And as Maryland progressives move on from their post Trump-election shock, they’re going to be mounting a more concerted effort to define what Hogan really stands for.

And that gets to another important, overlooked reason Hogan can be beat: His record is deeply hostile to liberal values.

Let’s start with the environment. While just this week Hogan’s team released a statement positioning the governor as a champion of green energy and sustainability, his substantive policy positions paint a very different picture. During Hogan’s first week in office he blocked a series of environmental regulations, including a rule setting standards for air pollution at the state’s coal-fired power plants, and another restricting phosphorus pollution from farms near the Chesapeake Bay. This past summer the executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters co-published a Baltimore Sun op-ed detailing how Hogan has fought against major environmental reforms, including his veto of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a bill that passed the state legislature and was supported by 71 percent of Maryland voters.

“Most harmful, though, has been the way Mr. Hogan has confused the public about his overall battle plans,” the environmental activists wrote. “In April, with a grand ceremony in Annapolis, the governor signed the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, mandating a 40 percent reduction in statewide carbon pollution by 2030. But Mr. Hogan is careful to point out that the bill has no specific mandates as to how to achieve the goal. So the governor has taken enormous and undeserved environmental credit for signing a bold target on paper while actively obliterating every major policy realm in the state dedicated to actual climate pollution reductions.”

On transportation, Hogan has similarly faked left while moving right.

“He cancelled the Red Line [a $2.9 billion light rail project in Baltimore that had been in the works since 2002], crippled the Purple Line [a light rail project running through the D.C. suburbs], he sidelined reform for the Maryland Transit Administration and the Bus Network Improvement Program,” says Martha McKenna, a Democratic political strategist. “He hasn’t done anything to help people get to work. He’s really failed and now he’s trying to get the media to cover him like he’s been a transit champion.”

“Like Donald Trump, Governor Hogan is a master of political theater that communicates only the message he wants to convey,” adds Brooke Lierman, a Maryland state delegate who champions transit reform. “He can zing off one-liners like ‘road kill bill’ that mask the actual facts of the policy he is discussing. Democrats—myself included—struggle sometimes to effectively convey our policies in ways that resonate with voters.”

If Democrats can learn how to combat Hogan’s PR smokescreen in the coming years, they can expose a governor with an agenda deeply at odds with the state’s electorate.

On the issue of public education, Hogan hasn’t bothered to conceal his true aims. In addition to cutting funding for public schools and lengthening summer vacation—a move that will disproportionately hurt low-income students—Hogan wants to increase funding for private school vouchers and significantly expand charter schools throughout the state. And though under Maryland state law all charter teachers are unionized, Hogan backed an effort in 2015 to change that.

Another reason Hogan’s record has flown under the radar is because the state has been preoccupied with the governor’s battle with cancer. Hogan spent a year-and-a-half of his tenure undergoing chemotherapy, garnering understandable bipartisan sympathy and softening criticisms. He’s also assembled a sophisticated communications team, and benefited from a massively thinned out press corps. All of which have helped divert attention from the big tax breaks he crafted for Northrop Grumman and Marriott International, and the cancellation of another billion-dollar economic revitalization project in Baltimore.

Given the paucity of Maryland media coverage, it will up to Democrats and activists to get the word out about what Hogan is really up to. But holding Hogan accountable to his record is only part of the solution. Another challenge will be prodding suburban liberals to vote in accord with their progressive values. Lily Geismer, a Claremont McKenna historian who writes extensively about suburban voters and shifts within the Democratic Party, has examined the phenomenon of blue states with Republican governors. She says voters in Democratic strongholds like Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland tend to think if they elect moderate conservatives from business-oriented backgrounds, they’ll somehow be opting for efficient, fiscally responsible state management, while still holding true to their liberal commitments. The lure of a federal-state split ticket may be even stronger for suburbanites who spend all day working in the nation’s capital.

“Being so close to D.C. is a blessing and curse,” says Lierman. “Maryland is home to a plethora of brilliant and engaged policy wonks, cabinet secretaries, and federal workers. But by and large they are concerned with federal policy and national politics—not state and local government.” To regain power, Democrats need to remember the importance of local governance; opposition to right-wing policies in Washington matters less if those same policies are simply recreated in statehouses.

Larry Hogan can be beaten in 2018. Exposed as a right-winger, stripped of a favorable national political environment, and facing a reinvigorated Democratic opposition, Hogan’s veneer of inevitability wouldn’t last long.

Which is just one reason why a sharp Democratic leader looking to move on to the national stage might want to take a hard look at the Old Line State and its supposedly invulnerable governor.

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