Mac Mathias was the last Republican to win a U.S. Senate race in Maryland in 1980. No Republican presidential candidate has carried Maryland since George H.W. Bush in 1988. On the other hand, Republicans managed to win the governor’s mansion twice since 2000. Bob Ehrlich’s 2002 victory broke the long Democratic streak since Spiro Agnew’s fluke election in 1966.
No Democratic winner fell below the 39% gained by Ben Cardin in his successful 2012 reelection bid. In both gubernatorial elections won by Republicans, the Democratic share of the white vote fell dramatically. In 2002, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend won an estimated 34% of white voters.
Anthony Brown performed even more poorly with just 31% in 2014. Towards the close of the 2014 campaign, I estimated that Brown realistically needed a maximum of 37% white support in order to capture the governor’s office.
Lower levels of white support result from two factors: defection and abstention. Put another way, some normally Democratic white voters switched to the Republican in these races. Additionally, others either didn’t vote or sat out these contests.
Since the 2016 election, much of the discussion has focused on the need to increase Democratic turnout, especially non-white turnout and especially in midterm elections. For Democrats, these are good goals, if only because the share of the white vote needed to win declines if more non-white, primarily African American but also Asian and Latino, Democrats vote.
At the same time, the 2016 elections also show the limits of relying solely on non-white voters. Turnout nationally among Latinos and Asians rose and by more than white turnout. African-American turnout declined from the historic levels seen when Barack Obama was at the top of the ticket.
Nevertheless, the task of winning the governor’s mansion would be a lot easier if Democrats can win back a higher share of the white vote by preventing both defections and abstentions. Even with higher minority turnout, it would have been hard for Anthony Brown to win without increasing white support.
The implications extend beyond gubernatorial elections. The retention of not so much control but dominant majorities in the General Assembly depends on receiving enough white voters. Losing more white votes means, for example, losing Senate seats that are critical to invoking cloture for legislation favored by Democrats and their ability to override Gov. Hogan’s veto.
I’m not saying that Democrats should take minority voters for granted. No political party should ever take anyone’s vote for granted, and I expect Hogan to look to increase his non-white support in 2018. But Maryland Democrats cannot repeat their 2014 hemorrhage in white support if they want to defeat Hogan.