Governing Purple in a Blue State Gov. Larry Hogan’s surprising victory last fall gave conservatives in Maryland hope that their deep-blue state might begin taking on a purple hue.

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Illustration by Vigg
Illustration by Vigg

You win a big office, it gets people interested in running for office excited about their potential,” explained Irwin Morris, chair of the government and politics program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Knowing that presidential election years galvanize voters, conservatives are building up their grassroots efforts, says Ryan Miner, an Internet radio host and prolific writer on his eponymous political blog.

Miner, who describes himself as a Libertarian-Republican from Washington County now living in the Montgomery County portion of the Sixth Congressional District, said conservatives need to identify where they have common ground with liberals—after all, Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two-to-one among registered voters in the Old Line State.

When brainstorming how to get more people registered with the GOP, said Miner, party members need “to bring it down to the most important local issues.”

“How do we get rid of homelessness, get rid of cronyism?” Those are the questions that are going to bring Marylanders into the Republican big tent, Miner believes.

Even this far in advance of the next gubernatorial election, conservatives are cautiously optimistic.

“I do think that Hogan has a chance to be a two-term governor,” said Richard E. Vatz, professor of political persuasion and blogger for the conservative website Red Maryland.

Another positive? A change in the content of The Baltimore Sun’s opinion pages.

The published columnists were left-leaning during the last Republican governor’s tenure and during presidential candidate and former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s time in office, stated Vatz. “Now the op-ed page, they consistently give voice to conservatives. It’s been a real change in the journalistic atmosphere of Maryland.”

But Maryland won’t be turning red anytime soon.

“I don’t see Republicans having a long line because they don’t have the bench for it,” said Vatz.

That, compounded by the fact that the state legislator has been overwhelmingly Democratic for decades. Even though Democrats lost five seats from 2010 to 2014 in the House of Delegates, they still hold 93 of the 141 seats. Same in the State Senate, where the Democrats lost two seats, but still hold 33 of the 47 seats.

“You would think that the map would be painted red, but there’s a concentration of Democratic voters who, in the 1970s, migrated to Montgomery County,” said Miner.

“Montgomery County is a Democratic foothold; it’s the progressive incubator of the state,” said Miner. “For good or for bad, Montgomery County has more Democrats than any other county, then of course you have Prince George’s [and Baltimore City] which are not trending Republican anytime soon.”

Vatz traces Democrats domination back decades to former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s time as Maryland governor. Agnew’s dishonesty—he pleaded no contest to accepting bribes during his tenure as governor—hurt the Republican Party, contends Vatz.

“Hogan cannot reverse the Democratic majority in Maryland, but given an opponent, I think he can do well,” said Vatz.

Added Miner, “Hogan has to govern as a purple governor and that’s what he’s doing.”

In the past 45 years, only two Republicans—former Gov. Bob Ehrlich and Hogan—have managed to get elected to the state’s highest office, and only seven Republicans total in the history of the state. Just how did Hogan win in a deep blue state?

“Gov. Hogan made a very wise political decision in saying that social issues that rally Democrats were not on the table for this election,” said Vatz. “He was going to focus on economic issues.”
And those issues resonate not just with fiscal conservatives and libertarians, but with a number of conservative leaning Democrats.

Hogan’s success was also due to timing, said Morris.

“I think the governor was running in a year that was going to be difficult for Democrats in general,” said Morris. Midterm elections following a two-term governor are always tough, added Morris.

But liberals, such as Larry Stafford, acting executive director with Progressive Maryland, blame former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s failure on low voter turnout.

“Despite the two-to-one ratio in the state, Democrats did not vote,” said Stafford. “If turnout had been even, I think the results would have been even.”

The Democratic Party, Stafford continued, simply did not put up a candidate that excited the base.

“Brown was too wonky,” said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College. “He was inarticulate on why people were getting a good value of the O’Malley-Brown years.”

Though the loss, particularly when Brown was so heavily championed as the heir apparent, was bruising, it has only strengthened liberals’ resolve in the upcoming election cycle.

Like his conservative counterparts, Stafford and his organization are building grassroots efforts.

“We want to use [the presidential election] as an opportunity to engage the public and recruit and build a base of progressive voters,” said Stafford.

And the numbers are in his favor.

Nataf, who spends his days collecting and analyzing data said, “If Democrats made all elections the same as presidential years, they’d win every statewide election.”

So while Democrats surely have the upper hand—Vatz, a Howard County resident who previously lived in Baltimore County for 30 years and Baltimore City for 10, said no Republican is going to take over for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake anytime soon—Miner is still optimistic that Hogan’s election “shows that ideas won.”

One of those ideas is redrawing the map when it comes to Maryland congressional districts, which heavily favor Democrats. Seven of Maryland’s eight representatives to Congress are Democrats.

In August, Hogan issued an executive order establishing the Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission to provide recommendations by November to reduce gerrymandering. The present map, redrawn in 2012, has been called by The Washington Post’s Wonk Blog “the most gerrymandered” tied only with North Carolina.

Historically, explained Morris, rural districts were overrepresented and an overhaul was needed to better reflect the population. Looking at the current congressional maps in terms of geography —the number of rural counties versus the number of urban counties—is useless without population numbers for added context.

In other words, the three westernmost counties in Maryland do not meet the population threshold to warrant their own representation. But, the criticism goes, it doesn’t mean that the politically conservative residents of those counties should be lumped in with the liberal stronghold of Montgomery County.

“People on the Eastern Shore, out west, even in parts of Montgomery County, in Poolesville, they don’t feel that their representative in D.C. is listening to them,” said Miner, “hence, the anger.”
Stafford has not witnessed friction over the congressional districting and added that there are liberal-leaning voters all over the state. The issue of redistricting, he said, should be solved at the federal level.

“It’s a challenge across the country where Republicans have unfairly drawn lines,” said Stafford. “In the majority of cases, it’s Republicans who have used redistricting to favor them.”
Nataf takes a more measured tone.

“It’s pretty hard to know what people expect from Congress,” said Nataf. “For [congressional elections] it’s more of a partisan, ideological vote.”

If a Republican governor truly maxed out his or her redistricting possibilities, the best case scenario, Nataf contends, would be perhaps one or two more Republican representatives sent to Congress.
Regardless of where people fall on the political spectrum, “I think that Maryland is the greatest state in the union and I think that we have a lot of smart people who live in Maryland—Democrats and Republicans,” said Miner.

“For the sake of my children, for my children’s children someday, I hope that we have the opportunity someday to really work together, forget about partisanship, because when we put Maryland first, we win.”

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