Two popular Republican governors in blue states are expected to seek reelection in the first midterm of Donald Trump’s presidency. One of them is drawing a field of prospective challengers that is more than twice as large as the other.
Democrats have set their sights on unseating both Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. The seats are critical to closing the gap on Republicans’ historic majority in governorships.
While either would rank as an upset at this point, Democrats think there is more opportunity in Maryland.
Both Maryland and Massachusetts reliably vote for Democratic presidential nominees, and Hillary Clinton won each by more than 25 points last year. But Massachusetts, where half of voters identify as independents, has a longer recent history of electing Republican governors such as Mitt Romney and Bill Weld.
In the more Democratic Maryland, by comparison, before Hogan was elected in 2014, Republicans had won just a single governor term since Spiro Agnew resigned in 1969 after being elected vice president.
The field of Democratic candidates to unseat Hogan grew to seven last week, with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and former Michelle Obama policy aide Krish Vignarajah kicking off their campaigns.
Still, Maryland’s political heavyweights opted for other ambitions. Rep. John Delaney, a wealthy self-funder from the western part of the state, is running for president in 2020. Hogan’s 2014 challenger, Anthony Brown, was elected to the House just last year. And former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, one of Brown’s opponents in the 2014 primary, announced last week he has “no plans” to run.
None of the candidates stood out in a Goucher College poll released this week, which included Gansler and policy strategist Maya Rockeymoore, the wife of Rep. Elijah Cummings, who is considering running.
“There’s no prohibitive front-runner,” Gansler said. Plus, the 2014 candidate warned, “a contested, … brutal, bruising primary will absolutely hurt whoever comes out.”
Baker hasn’t drawn any opposition from Beacon Hill Democrats, with whom he reputedly has good relationships. That’s in contrast to Hogan who, as gubernatorial candidate and Maryland state Sen. Richard Madaleno put it, “completely” ignores the Annapolis legislature.
Maryland Democrats boast a larger candidate bench thanks in part to the proximity of Washington. Former State Department innovation adviser Alec Ross, who in April became the first candidate in the race, said he started considering his first bid for public office after Trump was elected.
“A lot of us who are now running for office were inspired by [President Obama] and inspired by calls to serve,” Ross said.
In separate interviews, six of the declared Maryland candidates cited Trump’s victory as part of their decision to run. Kamenetz said Hogan and Trump “are taking our country and our state in the wrong direction.” Former NAACP President Ben Jealous, who was moved by the 2015 Baltimore uprisings as well, decided the Maryland governorship was “the one thing we can change.” Former University of Maryland Board of Regents chair Jim Shea called Hogan “no friend of public education,” citing his appearance with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a charter-school advocate.
“So much of our population are either federal employees … or work in the District,” said Justin Schall, who managed Brown’s 2014 campaign. “I think there is a ginormous gut reaction to, ‘What do you mean this is our president?’”
Hogan has tried to distance himself from the leader of his party. His presidential vote went to his father, former Rep. Larry Hogan Sr., who died in April, and among other things he has opposed Republican plans to overhaul the federal health care law. Goucher College professor Mileah Kromer said her poll showing a plurality saying Hogan has distanced himself “about the right amount” from Trump is “key” to his reelection chances.
“Democrats are peddling some weak sauce if the best strategy they can dream up is guilt by association,” said Hogan’s campaign manager, Jim Barnett. “But it’s all they’ve got given the governor’s strong record.”
Baker has been a leading moderate Republican voice on more personal differences with Trump, calling out the president’s response to the demonstrations in Charlottesville and his attacks against MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski. Baker frequently critiques Congress’s plans for health care overhaul and spent last week at a Republican Governors Association meeting in Chicago lobbying his colleagues to oppose the now-abandoned Graham-Cassidy bill. A plurality of voters in a February MassINC Polling Group survey thought he has been “appropriately” critical of Trump.
“Look at what Charlie Baker’s done” on immigration and health care, said Maryland Democratic candidate Rushern Baker, the Prince George’s county executive who hails from western Massachusetts. “I use this as an example when I go around and talk.”
Baker could still face a formidable challenger in Newton Mayor Setti Warren; Jay Gonzalez, a budget chief under former Gov. Deval Patrick; or environmental activist Bob Massie. Former state Sen. Dan Wolf is also a possible candidate.
Other candidates could have joined the fray but never showed public interest. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is a constant source of speculation as a possible challenger but instead has taken on a high-profile role among Democrats legally opposing Republican federal policies.
Operatives also noted Reps. Seth Moulton and Joe Kennedy as possible candidates, but both congressmen and their consultants said this week they never seriously gave the race any thought, citing their work in Washington.
“If you don’t have a powerhouse Democrat who would have to give up something to take a chance, you’re kind of left with right now what looks like the B team,” said Scott Ferson, a Massachusetts consultant to both congressmen.
Setti Warren’s team, for their part, say they’re not concerned about the state of the field, especially as Democrats hope to avoid a contentious intraparty fight before the September 2018 primary.
“I don’t worry that you have candidates who are talented but not yet known,” said John Walsh, a former Massachusetts Democratic Party chair who is advising Warren. “I’ve been through that before,” he said, in reference to his management of Patrick’s successful 2006 run.