Josh Kurtz: Maryland in the National Context – and Spotlight

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By: Josh Kurtz

Yes, that was Gov. Larry Hogan (R) peering out from newspaper boxes all around Washington, D.C., last week. Framed by the fat snowflakes that fell throughout his inaugural address, a smiling Hogan was the cover boy for an article in the conservative Washington Examiner titled, “How the GOP wins in the Northeast.”

Even more fascinating was the cover story in this week’s National Journal magazine called “The Emerging Republican Advantage,” which devoted several hundred words to Hogan’s upset victory over Democrat Anthony Brown in November.

Three months later, Hogan’s win remains big news in national politics.

The Examiner piece amounted to a victory lap of sorts. It was written by Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank funded by the Koch brothers – and a volunteer for Hogan’s campaign. But it contained valuable insights about the limitations Republicans still face in deep blue states – how GOP governors like Hogan inevitably disappoint conservative true believers, and how even though Republicans have had some success in recent Northeastern gubernatorial elections, it remains all but impossible for the GOP to win U.S. Senate races in those states (are you listening, Bob Ehrlich?).

The National Journal piece was more significant because it was written by John B. Judis, a veteran liberal journalist who was co-author of an important book published about a decade ago called “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” which anticipated the rise of the coalition that Barack Obama rode to two White House victories – and which continues to comfort Democrats after their dismal midterm election performances.

The book predicted that with minority populations growing, with millennial voters emerging, with the gender gap widening, with the tech sector an increasingly important part of the U.S. economy, and with large inner-ring suburbs turning more diverse and liberal, Democrats would have distinct electoral advantages for the foreseeable future. That has certainly proven to be the case in the last two presidential elections.

Now Judis is rethinking that argument – and Hogan’s victory is part of the reason why.

In his National Journal article, Judis identifies a growing and influential sector of the electorate that he labels middle-class white voters. That’s separate and distinct from blue-collar white voters, who Democrats have struggled to hold onto since Ronald Reagan was elected president in a landslide in 1980.

Blue-collar white voters often have trouble making ends meet and are generally conservative on social issues. They are in the habit of voting Republican these days – often even when Republican economic policies work against their interests.

Middle-class white voters, as defined by Judis, are more comfortable – with household incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. They hold college degrees – but not, significantly, graduate degrees – and professional jobs, and are generally moderate to liberal on social issues. They will not vote for Republicans who make overt appeals to evangelical voters or take extreme positions on social issues like abortion or same-sex marriage.

But Judis, citing national exit polls from the past several election cycles, believes this segment of the electorate has been gradually trending Republican since 2010, a GOP wave election. These voters, he says, are skeptical of big government spending programs, like the federal stimulus package of 2009 and Obamacare. They simply do not see what’s in it for them.

Begin to sound familiar?

There were no exit polls in Maryland last year. But Judis – who lives in Maryland but confesses he doesn’t follow state or local politics closely, much like most national reporters who merely rest their heads here at night – anecdotally detects the same drift among Free State voters. It isn’t news that Brown got clobbered in the Baltimore suburbs and exurbs, and that if Democrats don’t do well in that region during statewide elections, they’re liable to be in trouble. 

But Judis sees the attitudes of voters in those jurisdictions – turned off by tax increases under former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) – as part of the larger national trend, and surmises that they will continue to be more likely to give the GOP their votes. This not only explains Brown’s wipe-out in blue collar territory like eastern Baltimore County, but his big losses in Howard and Anne Arundel counties and even in more traditionally liberal precincts of Baltimore County.

On one point I disagree with Judis: He doesn’t think racism especially motivates these middle-class white voters or contributed to Brown’s defeat. I do think it was at least a factor in the November result.

Judis calls Brown “a bland technocrat…[who] did not have a history of taking strong positions on racial issues and did not do so in his campaign.” That’s true. But the fact is that in a state with a very significant minority population, no African-American has ever won a statewide election (the last three lieutenant governors, who are all black, were handpicked by white candidates for governor and did not appear on the ballot independently). Even in other Northeastern states where Republicans have been elected governor in recent years, like New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, minorities have won statewide elections.

Maybe there wasn’t overt racism against Brown. But there was clear voter resentment against many O’Malley administration policies. Signature O’Malley achievements, like the DREAM Act and gay marriage, protect certain classes of people, but don’t necessarily speak to average white voters. Government spending is disproportionately designed to aid poorer Marylanders.

It’s been a long time since George Wallace won two presidential primaries in Maryland, and since George Mahoney won a Democratic primary for governor by reminding voters that “your home is your castle.” But that doesn’t mean that certain resentments don’t linger. Didn’t Anne Arundel County voters just elect Michael Anthony Peroutka (R) to their county council? Didn’t some of the rhetoric during the gubernatorial campaign and in the months since, about “taking back your state,” seem racially tinged?

So what does it all mean going forward? There undoubtedly is a dynamic progressive and minority electorate in Maryland that has never been fully unleashed – and that can act as a counterpoint to some of the trends Judis identifies. But if Maryland Republicans get smart, and run only Chamber of Commerce types like Larry Hogan in statewide elections, they have a good chance of securing their hold on many of these middle-class white voters around the state.

Shortly after Hogan beat Brown, a high-ranking Maryland Democratic official I spoke to expressed fears that the Koch brothers could come into the state to try to influence future elections. Is it possible? Sure. But first they’ve got to figure out if their $900 million investment in the 2016 election pays off – and they may have bigger states to play in come 2018. Anyway, who knows what the national and state political terrain will look like then?

But it’s hard not to think about this: As O’Malley charts his presidential campaign, he’s hoping to make the argument that Maryland is a trend-setter when it comes to advancing progressive policy. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Maryland, as Judis suggests, becomes a political trend-setter in a different way?

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.