MD-Gov: An Impossible Lift for Republicans

Of the four Republican gubernatorial pickups in the 2014 cycle, Maryland’s was arguably the biggest upset. Eight years later, the Republican party that once pulled off two-term Governor Larry Hogan’s victory is virtually unrecognizable. 

In such a firmly Democratic state, Gov. Hogan’s popularity has nearly hinged on his perception as a moderate. It certainly helped in 2018, when a blue wave environment failed to create sufficient headwinds in Hogan’s re-election, challenged by former NAACP President Ben Jealous. This year, the circumstances have been reversed: State Delegate Dan Cox has been cast as the more ideologically extreme against his opponent, Army veteran and non-profit CEO Wes Moore – and for good reason. 

A WaPo-UMD poll lets us compare the Moore v. Cox race to the Hogan v. Jealous race around the same time in each cycle. Cox has suffered from insufficient resources to paint Moore as an extremist and so closely aligned with former President Trump that Hogan has been unwilling to endorse Cox.

An unreplicable upset 

The midterm climate of 2014 demolished conventional wisdom and resulted in a thoroughly purple statewide environment. A bit of history: After the state flipped for Democrats in 1992, it trended further and further out of reach for Republicans at the presidential level. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s 36 percent share of the vote in 2012 marked a 20-year low for Republican presidential candidates. 

Nationally, Republicans’ share of the House popular vote hit 51 percent, a four-point swing from Romney’s popular vote share in 2012. While Democrats hemorrhaged support across the country, Maryland was a bloodbath: Only 47 percent of the statewide House popular vote went to Republican congressional candidates. The seismic 11-point shift became a springboard for Larry Hogan, with split-ticket voters tipping him over the edge. Hogan ultimately out-performed Romney by 15 points, beating then-Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown 51 percent to 47 percent.

Low Democratic turnout was a problem statewide. The collapse became particularly visible in Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District–which encompasses most of the majority-black precincts on the Maryland side of D.C., as well as a chunk of Anne Arundel county north of Annapolis. While Republican raw votes remained relatively static from cycle to cycle, nearly 20 thousand fewer voters came out for incumbent Democratic House Rep. Donna Edwards in 2014 than in 2010, shrinking the Democratic margin in that district by 12 points. In western Maryland, the total number of votes cast in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District dropped from 242,189 in 2010 to 190,536 in 2014.

While Hogan’s most recent approvals are in the low seventies, most public polling gives Moore well over a 30 point lead (see: WaPo, Goucher). Brown led in most polls until October, but a timeline of public polls shows Brown’s support snaking along 50 percent, with most undecideds eventually falling to Hogan. What might be cast by pundits as far more of a polling “miss” actually showed the race rapidly tightening. 

view on Google Data Studio

This November, the same 15-point shift over two years (however improbable) would not be enough for Republicans to hold the seat. In 2020, Joe Biden cleared 65 percent in Maryland, making him the state’s best-performing Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. At the same time, Trump’s 32 percent marks the worst showing for any Republican presidential candidate in Maryland going all the way back to William Howard Taft in 1912.

Under different circumstances, with a different nominee, perhaps this race would have been one to watch come election night. Even in a nightmare scenario for Democrats, a repeat of Hogan’s victory seems impossible.