In Deep-Blue Maryland, Democrats Fight To Beat Popular Republican Governor

Jun 25, 2018
Originally published on June 26, 2018 11:00 am

Whichever candidate breaks through the crowded field of Democrats to win Maryland's gubernatorial primary Tuesday, will likely face an uphill battle in the fall, trying to deny popular incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan from securing a second term.

Four years after his surprise victory, Maryland's Republican governor enjoys sky-high approval ratings in a state where Democrats have a veto-proof majority in the state legislature, control both U.S. Senate seats and all but one of the U.S. Congressional districts.

Registered Democrats also outnumber registered Republicans in the state by a 2-to-1 ratio.

After ticking off a list of accomplishments over the last four years, including cutting taxes and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, Hogan reminded a crowd at his reelection campaign kickoff earlier this month in Annapolis of his surprise 2014 election.

"We pulled off the greatest upset victory in the entire United States of America."

Even in this election year, Hogan has shown a willingness to go against the leader of his party, President Donald Trump.

In protest of the thousands of children being split up from their parents, the governor called the state's National Guard troops home from the southern border last week.

Since his election, Hogan has earned praise for being a reassuring presence during the 2015 riots in Baltimore, following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. He also endeared himself to many throughout the state as he continued to work while fighting through a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The governor says he is now cancer free.

Hogan has also built a strong base of bipartisan support and enjoys an approval rating that hovers around 70 percent.

"Unlike Washington, where nobody gets along and nothing ever seems to get done, here in Maryland we've chosen a different path. And we're setting an example for the rest of the nation," Hogan said at his campaign kickoff, before adding his sales pitch to voters for the fall.

"If we can make all this progress while dealing with riots and battling cancer, just imagine what we're going to get done over the next four years." Hogan is running unopposed in Tuesday's primary.

Hogan's popularity isn't just aligned to his politics, according to Mileah Kromer, Director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College in Baltimore.

"He has a personality that people like," Kromer says. "He's gregarious, he comes across as authentic, but he's also one of the most disciplined politicians I've ever come across."

Damon Flemons, a voter in Maryland, says he sees those characteristics in the governor, too.

"I'm a traditional Democrat and I voted Republican," he said at Hogan's reelection campaign launch.

Flemons is the type of voter Democratic Party officials are worried about because he crossed party lines once for Hogan – and plans to again in the fall.

"If we take ourselves out of partisan politics and look at what's best for our state, we'll see that he's the best candidate to do that," Flemons said.

The Democratic primary race for governor has a crowded field of eight candidates, who have relied heavily on their biographies to distinguish themselves from each other.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stumps for Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous in Silver Spring, Md.
Jose Luis Magana / AP

"This is a primary that a lot of folks have contextualized as 'sleepy,' " says Goucher College professor, Mileah Kromer.

"Which is really a shame," she adds, "because the two front-runners for the Maryland gubernatorial primary are African-American men, in a state that has never elected an African-American governor."

Polls heading into primary day indicate it's a two-man race between Rushern Baker, a former state delegate and current top official in Prince George's County, one of the nation's wealthiest majority-black jurisdictions, and Ben Jealous, a first-time candidate and former head of the NAACP, the country's oldest civil rights organization.

Baker has the backing of much of the state's political establishment, including U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and former governor and one-time presidential nominee, Martin O'Malley.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) front left, endorses Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, right, for governor.
Brian Witte / AP

In the closing weeks of the primary campaign, Jealous had big-name progressives stump for him including Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, Cory Booker, D-N.J., and childhood friend and comedian Dave Chappelle.

There is evidence voters may be more engaged as the primary campaign draws to a close. The Baltimore Sun reported that early voting, which ended Thursday, was up 56 percent from the previous gubernatorial primary in 2014. The paper also found before early voting started Jealous and Baker were tied at 16 percent, according to a poll of registered likely voters.

Other Democrats seeking the nomination include state Sen. Richard Madaleno, Baltimore attorney Jim Shea, technology entrepreneur and author, Alec Ross, and Krish Vignarajah, a former policy director for Michelle Obama.

Valerie Ervin, a former Montgomery County, Md. city councilmember, dropped out of the race earlier this month and endorsed Baker.

Ervin was running for lieutenant governor but moved to the top of her ticket after running mate, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, died suddenly in May.

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Democrats in Maryland will vote for their nominee for governor tomorrow. Both leading candidates in the Democratic primary are African-Americans, both hoping to become the state's first black governor. The nominee will face Republican Governor Larry Hogan, who's quite popular. He won office in a blue state and has worked to keep his brand separate from President Trump. NPR's Brakkton Booker has more.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Aside from the R next to his name, Governor Larry Hogan does not have a lot in common with President Trump except for the way each talk about their out-of-nowhere election wins.


LARRY HOGAN: We pulled off the greatest upset victory in the entire United States of America.


BOOKER: That's Hogan earlier this month talking about his victory in 2014. Since his election, the Republican has built a strong base of bipartisan support. He's earned praise for his steady hand during the Baltimore riots in 2015...


HOGAN: The people who have legitimate concerns and frustrations about the ongoing investigation with respect to what happened to Freddie Gray are not served well by these violent acts.

BOOKER: ...And inspired a hashtag, #HoganStrong, during his battle with cancer.


HOGAN: I am 100 percent cancer-free and in complete remission.

BOOKER: Even in this election year Hogan has shown a willingness to go against the leader of his party. In protest of the thousands of children being split up from their parents, the governor called the state's National Guard troops home from the southern border. But Hogan's popularity isn't just linked to his politics, says Mileah Kromer, who teaches political science at Goucher College in Baltimore.

MILEAH KROMER: He has a personality that people like. So he's gregarious. He comes across as authentic. But he's also one of the most disciplined politicians I've ever come across.

BOOKER: With all this as a backdrop, it becomes more clear why Hogan's approval rating hovers around 70 percent. At Hogan's re-election kickoff, I meet Damon Flemons.

DAMON FLEMONS: I'm a traditional Democrat, and I voted Republican.

BOOKER: He's the type of voter Democratic Party officials are worried about because he plans to cross party lines again.

FLEMONS: If we take ourselves out of the partisan politics and look into what's best for our state, we'll see that he is the best candidate to do that.

BOOKER: Of the eight Democrats running, the main front-runners are polling at just 16 percent. That's according to a recent Baltimore Sun poll. Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president, has been endorsed by big-name progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. He also got a boost from his childhood friend and comedian Dave Chappelle.


DAVE CHAPPELLE: So you guys know that I'm out of my element. Yeah. Yeah. Politics has never been my thing. But full disclosure - I've never had a lot of trust in government really until I realized that my godbrother might get a powerful seat.

BOOKER: Jealous credits Chappelle for shaping his views on making marijuana legal for adults.


BEN JEALOUS: We will take the money out of the gangs' pockets. But we'll use those tax revenues to make sure that every child in Maryland has pre-K and they show up to kindergarten ready to learn.

BOOKER: The other leading Democrat is Rushern Baker. Both men agree on most major issues, so it's hard to find daylight between the Jealous and Baker platforms.


RUSHERN BAKER: The one thing I would not fund with legalized cannabis, adult-use cannabis, is our education. Those dollars should be paid for out of the general fund.

BOOKER: Mileah Kromer, the political science professor from Goucher College, says a lot of people have called this primary race sleepy.

KROMER: Which is really a shame because we have - the two front-runners for the Maryland Democratic gubernatorial primary are two African-American men in a state which has never elected an African-American governor.

BOOKER: Tomorrow Democrats will decide their nominee and after that set their sights on beating a popular incumbent governor. Brakkton Booker, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.