Maryland’s Gubernatorial Toss-Up: Waves, Money, or Reactionary Social Discontent

For the first time since the last time, the Maryland gubernatorial election is officially a “toss-up.” There is certainly more than enough prognosticating going around, most of which will either be confirmed or denied in the next 48 hours.

We can break down the reasons used by pollsters and pundits to explain the tightening of this race into three distinct categories: Republican wave, unlimited money, or anti-incumbency social discontent. I’ll explain each.

Maryland is a particularly interesting test case in this election to see just how voter mindsets change rapidly based on influential factors. The oft-cited statistic is that Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland by a two-to-one majority. Similarly, Maryland has the largest per capita percentage of African Americans of any state outside of the Deep South. So, why has this race gotten so close so quickly?

Though voting blocs certainly exist for particular candidates and policies, the gubernatorial race is not the race for the White House. The cult of personality is far less than the much more tangible reflection on personal income. The diffuse nature of “American success” with the Presidency is replaced with the very real economic benefits of encouraging businesses and wealth to remain in the state. Thus, it seems that, even though Anthony Brown would be the first black governor of Maryland, the economic consequences have begun to override the socio-political endeavor to break new ground.

Let me also say that, despite the negativity in the gubernatorial race (which, as an aside, I have no problem with because it shows competition), the issue of skin color (which, leaving aside cultural and historical sins, seems like a nonsense factor in who to vote for) has not played a preeminent role. As Larry Hogan noted, there is quite a bit of diversity on the Republican side of the ticket as well.

So, in about two days there will be no need to guess about the outcome of the elections. So, let me be one of the first to debrief on the election and what we can learn (before it even takes place).

First, the “Republican wave.” There is a prediction going around that the unpopularity of the President (now sitting right around an all-time low of between 40-45%) will result in widespread opposition at the ballot box for congressional and gubernatorial elections. (Another aside, you should realize that the senators up for reelection this time around came to power on the coattails of President Obama in 2008, their loss here on the same is a fitting bookend). As noted for the past century, the party of the incumbent president does not fare well in midterm elections. This is especially true with a large democratic class standing for reelection. Does the close nature of Maryland’s race really reflect this trend?

The pundits will say that there was a distinct drop in poll numbers after President Obama came to Maryland to speak on behalf of Mr. Brown. Is this correlation actually causation? Probably not. Such a position would assume that a statistically significant portion of the undecided population (or, even worse for the Democrats, party-line voters) was unaware that Mr. Brown was a supporter of Mr. Obama. Knowing Maryland and its love-hate relationship with Washington DC, it seems wholly unlikely that Marylanders were unaware of Mr. Brown’s politics. Couple with this the reality that Mr. Hogan’s first real landed blow on Mr. Brown was associating Mr. Brown with the botched Maryland rollout of Obamacare. If there is a Republican wave, it was already cresting by the time Mr. Obama came to support Mr. Brown.

So, what is the takeaway here? The anti-incumbent trend, which in this election has crystallized into an anti-Democrat sentiment, was already well in motion before the last month of the campaign. The reality that the wave began to break at the same time as Mr. Obama’s visit to Maryland to campaign for Mr. Brown is bad optics but likely not the cause of the narrowing of the race.

Second, the wave of money. In the wake of what looks to be a significant Republican takeover in the Senate, the voices calling for a repeal of the Citizens United decision and its progeny will likely begin shrieking in earnest. The fact that plutocrats and technocrats can control the strings of power is nothing new. Frankly, I almost prefer the influence coming in the democratic process than simply buying elected representatives (just call me cynical).

So, does the major influx of money over the past few weeks really make that much of a difference? The answer is most likely yes. As I mentioned above, both sides are guilty of throwing some mud in this race. While I suppose I’m biased, Mr. Brown’s decision to manufacture social issue positions for Mr. Hogan were deceptive and, frankly (the Baltimore Sun agreed), seemed desperate when the Mr. Brown did not need to be.

Thus the nuance of the money question comes into play. Mr. Brown spent a tremendous amount of money attempting to define his opponent. While this seems like an effective tool, it was unnecessary. As most of the polls showed, up until about two months ago, Mr. Brown was a handy favorite to coast to victory. Mr. Hogan’s campaign then began its advertising campaign and Mr. Brown thought that disproportionate response was necessary. Thus, it was Mr. Brown, not Mr. Hogan that caused the influx of cash. Once the powerbrokers started to see the dismay in Mr. Brown’s campaign, they decided Mr. Hogan was a worthy investment and the money poured in. Had Mr. Brown left well-enough alone, the money factor would have been muted by the general malaise that accompanies mid-term elections.

So, what’s the takeaway here? Poor campaign decisions are the catalyst for the money spigots. The money was not going to pour in on its own (especially when you think of every race as an investment decision being made by businessmen, not philanthropists).

Finally, social issue discontent. The social issue landscape of Maryland has changed considerably during the O’Malley administration. Maryland was one of the first states to affirm gay marriage by referendum. Maryland’s social policies as adopted are some of the most progressive in the nation (much to the chagrin of conservatives). Some pundits see a reflection of a return to traditional values in the swing towards Mr. Hogan.

This is the least persuasive of the theories presented. Mr. Hogan has not run a campaign dominated by social issues. This is a particularly savvy move as the electorate, for good or for ill, has moved in a more libertarian direction with regards to gay marriage and drug enforcement. It was Mr. Brown who, in a tactical miscalculation, thought to attack Mr. Hogan’s views on social issues to undermine him with voters. This strategy was damaged from the outset. While social policies are certainly important, Mr. Hogan’s impact on the same is nearly impossible to feel. There is little doubt that Democrats, with a majority having supported Mr. O’Malley’s progressive social agenda, will still have a firm hold over both houses of the state legislature.

So, what’s the takeaway? Social issues were never important in this campaign and only seemed like an epithet that was thrown and reduced the popular opinion of Mr. Brown.

So, what’s really going on and why is this race so close?

The governor of Maryland has a tremendous amount of power when it comes to the State budget. With a governor at the helm who is friendly to business and can cut through the morass of needless or extraneous public spending, Marylanders hope that they can see more of their pay coming back to them. Maryland is lucky to have avoided the most disastrous part of America’s lost decade of economic decline, but, as the nation’s unemployment rate (we can argue whether this is an effective indicator of growth later) has steadily begun to fall, Maryland’s remains high.

People are worried about their jobs. Certainly they are worried about ISIS, Ebola, Russian invasions, and national decline, but the real fear that keeps Marylanders up at night is how exactly to make ends meet and how to thrive instead of living paycheck to paycheck. A recent statistic painted Baltimore as one of the only major cities in the United States without a Fortune 500 company being based there. While much of the Maryland economy is buoyed by the Washington DC suburbs, Marylanders rightly blast the way in which one-party rule in Baltimore City has held the City down and driven away economic prosperity.

Regardless of how the election turns out for the governorship of Maryland, this election was close because of the growing economic discontent in the state and the desire to thrive.

Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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