WASHINGTON – Maryland Democrats, looking to rebound from the upset victory of Republican Larry Hogan over Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, are debating whether to treat the loss as a brief hiccup in the blue state’s politics or as a sign of more serious voter discontent.
“I think everyone thinks it was just a one-off,” said David Heller, a political consultant who works for several Maryland Democrats, including U.S. representatives Elijah Cummings and Dutch Ruppersberger.
Heller said the general feeling around Democrats he represents is that the Brown loss was caused by a “perfect storm” of factors, such as a weak Democratic candidate, frustration over Gov. Martin O’Malley’s performance and a general negative attitude toward the state. A similar storm is not likely to come around again, he said.
“No one can imagine another Hogan victory again in four years. No one,” he said.
But David Moon, a newly elected Democratic delegate for the state’s 20th District, which covers parts of Silver Spring and Takoma Park, said Democrats would be foolish to think the party can go back to business as usual and voters will simply come back.
Moon ran a progressive campaign that focused on issues such as banning corporate contributions to candidates and combating climate change. In light of the Hogan victory, he said, he plans to turn toward more basic pocketbook issues, such as paid sick leave and raising the minimum wage when he enters the General Assembly in January.
The party has had scores of major victories with social policy over the last eight years, he said. Democrats need to address economic issues with the same urgency.
“Like it or not, voters said something,” he said. “We didn’t do a good job of selling them on what we’re offering them. If we don’t begin to address their economic needs directly, it’s entirely possible we’ll be in the same place in four years.”
Hogan’s victory is largely credited to his ability to address voter dissatisfaction over the state’s economy and taxes, which were raised substantially under O’Malley. He campaigned as a businessman who understood the pinch to working families of having to fork over dollars to pay for government programs.
But many Democrats have argued that his victory was more due to Brown’s lack of discipline as a candidate, an inability to connect with voters and his lack of a progressive vision for the state.
David Lublin, a professor of political science at American University who runs a blog, Seventh State, dedicated to Maryland politics, said voters may have just met the point where their liberalism conflicts with their pocketbooks.
“It’s hard to believe that that would’ve got the Democrats more votes,” he said of Brown presenting a progressive vision. “It doesn’t mean necessarily that Maryland has gotten more conservative. It just means there’s a limit to how much people want to pay for social programs.”
On Monday, Maryland U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski held a meeting at the state party headquarters in Annapolis with Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation, statewide elected officials, and the presiding officers of the General Assembly.
The meeting was held to discuss “the path to new leadership” for the party in the wake of the election loss.
Structurally, the composition of the state still favors Democrats. The party holds nine of the state’s 10 seats in Congress and has large majorities in both state houses. Other major state positions such as attorney general and state comptroller are held by Democrats.
Demographically, Maryland has seen its largest population growth among Hispanics, who tend to vote Democratic. Since the last U.S. Census in 2010, all but 4,200 of the state’s 111,000 population increase was due to the growth of minorities, according to Maryland Department of Planning figures.
The majority of state residents also tend to favor issues supported by Democrats. According to a 2013 poll conducted by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies, Inc., which surveyed more than 800 of the state’s registered voters, 58 percent supported the gun control law enacted under O’Malley. Support for President Barack Obama’s healthcare law was 57 percent.
Much of the possible future success for Republicans resides with the man who will enter the governor’s mansion in January.
“He’s huge,” Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said of Hogan. “The party goes where Hogan goes.”
Cluster said Republicans are counting on Democrats in the General Assembly pushing for the same progressive policies they’ve promoted the last eight years. If the state ends up gridlocked over policies the voters rejected, he said, Republicans will likely be the beneficiaries.
“I’m actually going to like to see the Democrats with large majorities,” he said. “It can only help us to have them pushing their agenda.”
Bob Fenity, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said the party is in the process of looking at what went wrong in the election in terms of voter turnout and messaging. There has not been much discussion of policy changes, he said.
“It may be something we’ll have to look at,” he said. “But we’ve done a lot of good in the last eight years. Unfortunately we didn’t convey well enough what we stand for.”