Larry Hogan, Maryland’s governor-elect, is no stranger to long-shot candidacies. In 1992, the commercial-real-estate broker tried to oust Steny Hoyer, then chairman of the House Democratic caucus and one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. “Some people believe it’s impossible to go up against the powers of incumbency and all that special-interest money,” Hogan, a political neophyte at the time, told the Washington Post. “But I say nothing is impossible.” He would lose the race by ten points, but it was Hoyer’s toughest race in a dozen years.
The stunning upset that wasn’t two decades ago may have been an early indicator of what was yet to come: On Tuesday, Hogan pulled off perhaps the most surprising victory of the 2014 cycle, a year in which there were plenty. Although he served as a cabinet secretary in the administration of former Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich, the 58-year-old businessman has never held elected office. And, though not a single public poll had showed him ahead, on Tuesday Hogan defeated Maryland’s lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown, by five points.
In doing so, Hogan dealt a blow not just to Brown but to Brown’s boss, Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, one of the Democratic party’s rising stars and a potential 2016 presidential candidate. Throughout the race, Hogan pounded away at O’Malley’s economic record and warned Maryland voters that Brown would offer more of the same.
Those close to Hogan say they weren’t shocked by Tuesday’s results. “For the past year I’ve been telling everybody that this was the sleeper race of the year, and they would look at me like I was crazy,” says Russ Schriefer, Hogan’s media consultant and a veteran of several presidential campaigns. His belief was bolstered by polls he conducted over the summer showing that Brown’s favorability ratings were low. “He’s a Democrat running in Maryland and you couldn’t blast this guy over 45 [percent favorability],” Schriefer says. In one poll, asked whether they would vote for a third term of the O’Malley administration, 58 percent of those surveyed said no.
Hogan, portly and red-faced with a full head of white hair, has a kind of everyman’s authenticity. He is a striking contrast both to O’Malley, a slick politician with a 1,000-watt smile, and to Brown, an African American with two Harvard degrees whom some have compared to Barack Obama. (Hogan attended Florida State University.) Even his campaign signs, with their yellow lettering emblazoned on a black background, had a sort of working-class feel.
Since 2010, when he founded the grassroots group Change Maryland, Hogan has been a gadfly to the O’Malley administration, criticizing the governor on everything from a wind-energy bill (“a box to be checked for O’Malley’s presidential to-do list”) to a gas tax (“the last thing in the world Maryland needs”). He is quoted in dozens of newspaper articles venting his frustration with the tax hikes — 40 in total — passed on O’Malley’s watch.
Steve Crim, a Hogan pal who went on to become his campaign manager this year, helped him found the group — over lunch, when they created a Web page on Hogan’s cell phone. After O’Malley’s reelection in 2010, Crim says, “We sat down and looked at what had happened and why.” Many Republicans in the state had concluded that the Republican party in Maryland was dead. Hogan and Crim felt otherwise, and Change Maryland was intended to provide a counterweight to the administration, particularly on taxes and other economic issues — in Crim’s words, to “communicate with Maryland about what was going on with Annapolis.” The group’s Facebook page, which has a large following, served as the Hogan campaign’s social-media platform.
Though Hogan holds traditionally conservative positions on a range of issues from the Second Amendment to gay marriage, as chairman of Change Maryland and on the campaign trail this year he talked almost exclusively about pocketbook issues. During O’Malley’s eight years in office, he hiked taxes on everything from cigarettes to alcohol to millionaires, and his actions had taken their toll. The Washington Post noted last month that Maryland voters “have grown weary of Martin O’Malley, their liberal-policy-embracing, tax-raising, and guitar-slinging governor.”
If Change Maryland had helped fuel the anger and weariness, the Hogan campaign ignited it with television ads and mailers. One mail piece pointed out that over the past eight years, a middle-class Marylander saw the state take $400 more out of his paycheck every month. The detailed and personal quality of the communications offers a contrast to the sort of economic messaging that came from Mitt Romney two years ago: The 2012 GOP standard bearer remained laser-focused on the economy, but with talk of debt and deficits and the world his grandchildren would inherit. “We really took that lesson to heart and really wanted to make sure people could connect to our message on a personal level,” says Mike Leavitt, the co-founder of Red Maverick Media, who served as a general consultant on the race. “We tried to talk to people [who] were middle-class families,” he says.
That’s not the only lesson the upstart campaign may be able to offer to Republicans looking to appeal more broadly to independent voters in left-leaning states. Several of Hogan’s ads featured Democrats — all of them women — saying that, while they’d never voted for a Republican, they were planning to pull the lever for this one. “In our polling, we were doing well with men; and we knew it was Maryland and we needed to get those swing, independent, and soft-Democratic women,” Schriefer says.
In late September, Schriefer placed a phone call to New Jersey governor Chris Christie, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Schriefer had conducted a poll earlier in the month showing Hogan trailing Brown by five points, 42 percent to 37, with voters indicating that taxes and the economy were the issues that would most affect their vote in November.
“I told him that there’s a real race in Maryland,” Schriefer says. “I asked him, ‘Next time you’re in D.C., if you could come and do a visit, that’d be fantastic.’” As the president, the first lady, and Bill and Hillary Clinton touched down in Maryland to stump with Brown, Christie showed up, too — four times, including this past Sunday, two days before the election. Christie, after all, the man who knocked off incumbent Jon Corzine in 2009, knows what it’s like to go up against a tough Democratic opponent in a blue state. By the end, according to Schriefer, the RGA spent close to a million dollars on the Hogan race.
That was far less than the organization spent in hotly contested races like Kansas, Wisconsin, and Michigan, but on Tuesday, the right message and the right messenger meant it was enough to help fuel the biggest upset of the cycle. The GOP’s 2016 Republican presidential aspirants should take note.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.