Josh Kurtz: The Permanent Campaign

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Anyone who thinks this brand new General Assembly session is about policymaking and not the next election -- and the next one, and the next one, and the one after that -- is smoking something.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Democratic leaders have made this plain with the statements they've delivered in the session's opening week.

Since his stunning upset 14 months ago, Hogan has never really abandoned campaign mode. And Democrats appear to be devoting all their energies to ensuring that Hogan doesn't win a second term in 2018.

If anyone had any doubts, consider what Maryland Democratic Chairman Bruce Poole said at a party luncheon in Annapolis last week, with dozens of lawmakers and party donors present: "What happens in Annapolis is going to define the Maryland Democratic Party for the entire year."

He didn’t say "for the next three years," but he could have.

At a State House news conference that same afternoon, Hogan was relentlessly on message, as he always is. It's clear that if he's determined to do one thing as governor, it's to provide tax relief for voters and regulatory relief for businesses.

Marylanders, he reminded a roomful of cheering aides, cabinet secretaries and other supporters, at the news conference/pep rally, elected him to "clean up the mess in Annapolis and put Maryland on a new path."

But Hogan continues to show contradictions when it comes to dealing with the Democrats. He recognizes that this is still a Democratic state, and that he'll need buy-in from Democrats to achieve some of his goals. But at the same time, he is dismissive -- even contemptuous -- when Democratic lawmakers lay out their priorities and demands.

That characteristic was on vivid display at his news conference last Tuesday, where he outlined his tax relief package. Hogan manages to offer Democrats an olive branch and then condemn them in almost the same breath.

He talks about the 40 tax hikes and fee increases enacted under former Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and the Democratic legislature and the "devastating effect it had on our economy," but then says he's open to all solutions, "and I don't care which side of the aisle the ideas come from." He'll argue that his proposals for tax relief should have widespread, bipartisan appeal, and then says, "Anyone who isn't in favor of it probably doesn't belong in the legislature."

So, which is it, Governor? Cooperation or contempt? Our sneaking suspicion is he will ultimately land on the latter. A quarter of the way through his term he already seems exasperated with reporters' questions about the Democrats' agenda.

Yet Democrats continue to display their own contradictions now that the reality has set in that Hogan remains wildly popular and may be hard to beat in 2018.

Consider the messages House Speaker Mike Busch (D) and Senate President Mike Miller (D) delivered at the Democratic luncheon last week. Both vowed to maximize education funding and preserve Democratic priorities.

But Busch talked about ensuring that "our voters have a voice" in Annapolis. He outlined how Hogan's funding priorities last year cost "the heartbeat of the state" -- Baltimore city and Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- millions of dollars.

"We are going to stand up for the Democratic values that are so important to the people who sent us here," Busch said.

Speaking after Busch, Miller put a little spin on the message. He told the roomful of Democrats, "This is not really the time for partisanship, and we know it." He then talked about the importance of selling the Democratic agenda "in Leonardtown, in Prince Frederick, in Salisbury, in Hagerstown, in Cumberland" -- places where Hogan racked up huge numbers in 2014.

So, which is it, Mikes? Cater to the base with a liberal wish list or try to reclaim lost territory with a tailored message and a dose of bipartisanship?

Democratic strategists like to believe they can do both. But how realistic is that, really?

When Republican Bob Ehrlich upset Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002, he took 61 percent of the vote in Baltimore County, 65 percent in Anne Arundel County, 74 percent in Harford County, and 55 percent in Howard County.

Four years later, en route to winning back Government House for the Democrats, O'Malley did considerably better in those four Baltimore-area jurisdictions than Townsend did, winning 48 percent in Baltimore County, 42 percent in Anne Arundel, 36 percent in Harford, and 50 percent in Howard.

But in 2014, Hogan had Ehrlich-like numbers in those four counties: 59 percent in Baltimore, 66 percent in Anne Arundel, 77 percent in Harford, and 52 percent in Howard.

With the possible exception of Howard County, don't expect such a dramatic Democratic bounce-back in those four places in 2018. 

O'Malley was the presumed 2006 Democratic nominee from almost the minute Ehrlich was elected governor. As mayor of Baltimore, he was on local TV all the time, and was seen in the city and its suburbs as an energetic leader and effective crime-fighter. And he was aided considerably in his bid to oust Ehrlich by George W. Bush's plunging popularity.

There is no O'Malley figure this time around. The Democrats are likely to have a wide-open and potentially bloody gubernatorial primary in 2018, dominated by Washington-area liberals. They may fire up the base, but they won't be appealing much to the all-important Baltimore suburbs or all those nice small cities Miller mentioned at the Democratic luncheon last week.

And who knows what the national political dynamic will look like in 2018? President Trump may be very popular indeed. He is tapping, at a certain level, the same type of anti-government sentiment that Hogan rode to victory.

Democrats like to believe that school funding is their one trump card -- no pun intended. But it's hard, in the public's mind, to draw a distinction between "fully funding education" (Democrats’ demand) and "record funding for education" (Hogan’s boast).

How can they both be right? Welcome to the nuances of state budgeting in Maryland.

"Education is my No. 1 priority," Hogan said at his news conference last week, with his patented touch of annoyance. "I don't know how many times I have to repeat this."

It's often said that Hogan has learned multiple lessons from the mistakes of the Ehrlich administration. Ehrlich reveled in being a national figure, and imagined himself the avatar of a Republican bulwark in Maryland that he then never lifted a finger to build.

Hogan seems content to chip away at Maryland's tax and regulatory regime, and for now, he's winning big. Hogan's advisers are well aware, however, that his approval ratings, inevitably, are going to go down.

But the center will hold. Despite throwing a couple of bones in the direction of the Big Three Democratic jurisdictions, Hogan seems to be governing almost exclusively with the places where he did so well in mind. And they will almost certainly be there for him in 2018, as Maryland is on the road to becoming as divided by geography, ideology, race and economic status as the rest of the country.

You’ll notice that nobody's talking about "One Maryland" any more.


Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. 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.