Republican Larry Hogan is among the most popular governors in Maryland history, but Democrats in the deep-blue state are intent on denying him a second term.
As many as eight Democrats already have announced or hinted at a campaign to knock off Hogan -- only the second Republican governor in Maryland in nearly five decades -- in next year's election.
“The latest polling that we have shows about 6 percent of the people in Maryland strongly disapprove of the job I’m doing,” Hogan told Fox News, during a recent event in voter-rich Montgomery County. “It seems like all of them want to run for governor. I wish them all well. I don’t know who’ll be the lucky one … but we’ll be ready for them.”
His November 2014 victory was widely considered the political upset of that election cycle, with Hogan even admitting he pulled off the “nearly impossible.”
The evolving field of 2018 Democratic hopefuls includes such marquee names as former NAACP leader Ben Jealous, Maryland Rep. John Delaney and former state Attorney General Doug Gansler.
There’s no question about Maryland’s political tilt. Roughly half the state’s 3.9 million voters are registered Democrats; Republicans haven’t controlled the General Assembly since the early 1900s; the last GOP senator was elected to Congress in 1970; and a Democrat has been governor in roughly 42 of the past 49 years.
Former Maryland Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards acknowledged the party primary will be “very, very robust" but suggested Democrats must do more than lean on their historical advantages to defeat Hogan.
“If you’re just going by the numbers, Democrats should win statewide offices,” she told Fox News last week. “But we haven’t always seen that in gubernatorial races. It’s incumbent upon Democrats to have a message for people in this state.”
Democrats also are targeting Hogan in another attempt to hand Republican President Trump his first big election loss -- after failing so far this year in four special elections to take a GOP-held seat.
“If Democrats are raring to steal one back from Trump, then Maryland is ripe for the picking,” said Maryland Republican Party official Rob Carter, who suggested recent polling data shows Democrats in the state are “as strong as ever, even a little bit stronger.”
Democrats largely attribute Hogan’s 2014 win over then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown to their candidate’s lackluster campaign, voters being over-taxed for eight years by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and low voter turnout in strongholds Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
However, Hogan, a former businessman who didn’t endorse Trump, captured the attention of voters with a steady message of jobs and economic growth that he continues to tout.
The 61-year-old Hogan has also largely averted the kind of political battles with the Democrat-controlled Assembly that contributed to Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. losing his 2006 reelection bid.
And he has spent millions on critical taxpayer concerns while continuing to avoid standoffs on such social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Hogan last year yielded to complaints from state Democrats, including members of the Black Legislative Caucus, about his request for roughly $18 million for a new jail, recommending the money instead go to projects for state universities.
And in March, he committed an additional $50 million to the Maryland’s opioid addiction crisis.
“I was the first governor in the country to declare a state of emergency on heroin and opioid,” he said last week, while touring the Wider Circle charity center in Montgomery’s Silver Spring.
Hogan remains widely popular, according to recent Washington Post/University of Maryland polls.
Delaney, though, recently said the governor’s only “noteworthy” legislative accomplishments have been lowering tolls and making schools start after Labor Day.
“I’m just going to try to stay focused on Maryland,” said Hogan, diagnosed in 2015 with cancer that is now in remission. “Maybe a year or so from now we’ll start thinking about reelection.”
Carter also said Hogan has been "nearly flawless in his first three years, despite great headwinds."
Most political observers argue that the Democrats’ path to the governorship is through Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties -- each a party stronghold and three of the state’s four biggest voting blocs.
Voting in Prince George’s, a big part of Edwards' former congressional district, could play a pivotal role.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in the county more than 10-to-1, and 65 percent of the population is African-American.
Jealous and other candidates must compete in the primary there against popular County Executive Rushern Baker, who if successful would become the state’s first black governor.
“But you have to show up and have a message that appeals to voters,” said Edwards, elected to four terms with an average 79 percent of the general election vote before losing a 2016 Senate bid. “You cannot just show up at churches on Election Day and hope that is going to work.”