The following is a guest post by Adam Pagnucco:
Most attention concerning the next round of state and local elections centers on the Governor’s office. Can the Democrats find a nominee to knock off Larry Hogan or can the Governor earn a second term? But the playing field is much larger than that. In truth, we are about to find out whether Maryland is on its way to becoming a genuine two-party state.
For most of the last few decades, the Maryland Republican Party has been almost irrelevant. Their sole Governor from the seventies through the early 2000s, Bob Ehrlich, was ejected after one term. Their presence in the General Assembly was negligible. Most of the large local governments were controlled by Democrats most of the time. The great debates of the day were driven by discussions within the Democratic Party and were not affected very much by those on the outside. But there is a real question now as to whether that sort of Democratic dominance will continue.
Regardless of whether Governor Hogan is reelected, the GOP enjoys a stronger position for future elections than anyone can recall in recent times. In 2022, the County Executives of Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard could very well be running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination whether Hogan wins a second term or not. If and when they do, Republican council members and/or state legislators will run to fill those Executive seats and become the next generation of local leaders. Competition for local council seats will be fierce in swing jurisdictions like Frederick, Howard and Baltimore County. Term-limited local officials will run for the General Assembly. In other words, in the absence of an earth-shattering event (like a Donald Trump presidency) or a mass revival of the Maryland Democratic Party, the Republicans’ recent gains could become self-sustaining.
The GOP will probably never be the majority party in Maryland in our lifetimes, but they don’t have to be. All they have to do is become competitive. That will enable them to become a factor in public policy debates both through their ability to win and hold elected office and through the threat of their doing so. We may already be seeing the effects of this as a bill to steer public funding to private schools has passed the Maryland Senate. Of the 25 Senators who voted in favor it, 14 were Republicans and some of the Democrats came from competitive areas like Anne Arundel, Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore. The House did not pass the Senate’s proposal, but did agree to use public money to fund private school scholarships for the first time in the budget. Rising right-wing influence may also be a factor in the Senate’s passage of tax cuts for the rich. This is a reversal from the Senate’s approval of tax hikes for “half millionaires” (those making $500,000 or more) in 2012 and the General Assembly’s approval of a temporary millionaire tax in 2008.
Another consequence of the GOP’s ascent could be the empowerment of its extremist elements. Governor Hogan presents a moderate face to the public. But a recent Baltimore Sun poll found that 34% of Republican primary voters supported Donald Trump for President and another 25% supported Ted Cruz. That is sure to capture the attention of Republican elected officials and influence their behavior. Republicans like race-baiting Delegate Pat McDonough (labeled by the Sun as “the Trump of Baltimore County”); neo-Confederate Anne Arundel Council Member Michael Peroutka; Delegate Neil Parrott, who wants to require HIV victims to get tattoos to obtain medicine; Hogan-appointed anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant Baltimore County school board member Ann Miller; and Frederick County Council Member Kirby Delauter are all part of the GOP bench. Imagine what they would do with real power.
The challenge facing Maryland Democrats is not just Governor Hogan – it’s also the growth of the GOP in areas other than the two Beltways and the portion of I-95 connecting them. Will the Democrats respond with a sweeping statewide effort to regain their past dominance? Or will Republican gains at the local level be entrenched? That may be an even bigger question than the identity of the next Governor and it could set the political table for many years to come.