Before Alaskans had even finished voting, Republican Larry Hogan had been declared the upset winner in Maryland’s gubernatorial election over incumbent Democrat Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown. Maryland, a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, elected just its second Republican governor since 1966. The election itself was off the national radar until a few high profile visits by the likes of the Obamas and Chris Christie and a last minute flurry of national money. In fact, a CBS/NYT/YouGov poll had Brown ahead of Hogan by 17% just a month before the election.
Yet, by the morning of November 5, Hogan had taken Maryland by an impressive 5% margin, 52% to 47%, or about 75,000 votes. How did he manage the upset? Hogan preached the right message, ran a perfect campaign against his opponent, and worked incredibly hard. His opponent did none of these and failed to mobilize his base. The results were shocking.
Since Maryland is such a blue state, the national media did not even bother to run exit polls this year. So we don’t know the demographics and priorities of the electorate, and who specifically voted for Hogan. But I can speculate, and explain how Hogan’s campaign ought to be emulated in jurisdictions large and small, in moderate and liberal areas.
Hogan’s story starts with the election of outgoing Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley in 2006. The O’Malley administration’s social agenda was fairly popular with the citizens of Maryland and he won re-election handily, by over 14% in the Republican wave year of 2010. On issues like urban policy, marriage, the death penalty, and the environment, O’Malley was strongest. But to boost revenues and pay for increased government spending, he had to raise taxes. And fees. And more taxes.
The state’s business environment was weak, taxes were increasing, and government was wasting money. Enter Larry Hogan. He was fed up with the barrage of taxes and the incompetency of the state government, and founded the organization Change Maryland in 2011. Change Maryland became a grassroots, government watchdog group that reported on taxes and government inefficiency, and quickly attracted a large following of Marylanders. Using Facebook as medium of communication, it provided a platform for opponents of the increasing barrage of taxes.
It also provided Hogan a platform to launch a gubernatorial run; Change Maryland’s base support and core message became Hogan’s. He argued that his campaign was best suited to defeating whatever Democrat emerged from the primary. Hogan won 43% of the vote in Maryland’s four-way Republican primary, and while the victory showed his outreach and message popularity, it shows that he was by no means a given to win.
Immediately following his primary victory, Hogan launched the strategy that he would pursue for the entire general election campaign. His strategy was this: I want to control the budget, reduce what taxes I can, improve the economic environment, and am a more competent manager than Anthony Brown. Hogan pledged to not change the social agenda of O’Malley (the Democratic State House would have never let him anyway) and reiterated that he was focused on improving Maryland’s business climate. He attacked Brown on the premise that he was simply another O’Malley term with additional taxes; he also criticized Brown for botching the roll-out of the Maryland health care exchange.
Central to Hogan’s campaign was his use of public financing, his tireless campaigning, and simple economic message. He toured the state constantly, visiting communities and businesses in rural and suburban areas. He reiterated his economic message constantly, and used his public funds wisely, airing a mix of positive messages featuring a diverse set of supporters, and also attacking Brown for his incompetence and association with an increasingly unpopular governor. Hogan appeared to voters as a reasonable, competent businessman, focused on improving the state economy.
Brown simply did not take Hogan seriously, relying on the Democrat-heavy electorate to carry him over Hogan. His ads were resoundingly negative, and often to the point of falsehood, and he failed to differentiate himself from O’Malley. Quite frankly, Brown did not make a serious efforts to reach out to voters after the grueling primaries. The Democrats failed to motivate Baltimore City voters, which proved to be a serious mistake. By the time Hogan started gaining in the polls, Brown’s efforts and big-name Democrats were too little too late.
The turnout in Baltimore City was almost 30,000 fewer this year than 2010, which certainly helped Hogan’s margin of victory. But Hogan won because he convinced Maryland’s suburbs (nine counties) to support him by an incredible margin of over 300,000, a margin larger than Brown’s advantage in the urban areas. These suburban areas were incredibly receptive to Hogan’s economically-focused message. His goals to reduce taxes and hold government accountable resonated in Maryland’s higher-income suburbs. He won Baltimore County, who re-elected a Democrat, by over 50,000 votes (a 20% advantage). Hogan’s constant campaigning in these areas also helped him gain such large margins.
His rural support was also strong, and this was due to Hogan’s campaigning and a deep dislike for the O’Malley administration. While these areas are strongly Republican, they turned out in even larger numbers to voice their displeasure of O’Malley’s eight year tenure. Hogan made a special effort to make these areas feel represented, and voters undoubtedly rewarded his efforts at the polls.
Larry Hogan taught us that a pro-growth, efficient government, economics-focused message can win elections in a purple or even a blue state. Obviously, the incompetence of the Brown campaign contributed to Hogan’s victory, but Hogan’s campaign should be studied and borrowed from in the years ahead. Larry Hogan’s tireless work on the campaign trail and dedication to a simple, pro-growth message led to this improbable victory.
Take notice, America: a seemingly average Republican businessman just won an improbable victory against a decades-experienced incumbent in a deeply Democratic state.