ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — One of the best opportunities for Democrats to regain a governor’s office this year is in Maryland, and the race to succeed term-limited Republican Larry Hogan has drawn a crowd of candidates. Winning back the seat shouldn't seem so tough for Democrats in a state where they outnumber Republicans by a 2-1 ratio, but the GOP has won three of the past five elections.
Nationwide, Republicans hold a 28-22 edge in governor's seats. Of the 36 governor’s races this year, Maryland and Massachusetts represent the best chances for Democrats to narrow the gap.
Maryland Democrats see an opening now because the popular Hogan, only the second Republican governor to win reelection in the state history, cannot seek a third term.
That’s attracted prominent Democrats to Tuesday’s primary, including members of former President Barack Obama’s Cabinet: onetime Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who also was chairman of the Democratic Party, and ex-Education Secretary John King.
Also in the race are Wes Moore, a bestselling author supported by Oprah Winfrey; Comptroller Peter Franchot, the state’s tax collector, who has name recognition in Maryland from four successful statewide races; and former state Attorney General Doug Gansler.
The primary winner will probably face either Kelly Schulz, a Republican endorsed by Hogan, or Dan Cox, who is backed by Donald Trump.
Given some of the GOP successes over the past two decades, Democratic voters are thinking more carefully about who can win in November.
Nancy Duden, 61, voted early in Annapolis, for Perez. It was a decision she struggled over during the drive to the voting center.
“Sometimes there aren’t very good choices, and this time there were so many good choices that I think people really need to pay attention to the qualifications of each candidate,” she said. “But I also think you have to give thought to who can actually win.”
Democrats once held the governor's mansion for more than three straight decades. When Republican Robert Ehrlich won in 2002, he was the first in his party to be governor in 36 years — since Spiro Agnew in 1966.
A poll last month by the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher, The Baltimore Banner and WYPR found no clear front-runner among the Democrats, with Franchot at 16% and Moore and Perez each at 14%.
The primary comes less than a month after a new Maryland law approved by the Democratic-controlled legislature took effect to expand abortion access. It was passed in anticipation of the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade, which the justices did in June.
Less than a week later, Hogan directed the Maryland State Police to suspend the state’s “good and substantial reason” standard for permits to carry handguns after the Supreme Court struck down a similar New York law.
The Supreme Court also limited the reach of the nation’s main air pollution law that’s used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants — a blow to environmentally conscious Maryland, home to the Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest estuary.
“We've got to keep Republicans away from the Statehouse,” said Doug McLaine, 78, who voted early in Annapolis for Moore and expressed concern about the gun ruling as the nation confronts a wave of mass shootings.
Moore, a former Army combat veteran who served in Afghanistan and former CEO of a national anti-poverty group, said the high court's rulings have illustrated how “massively important” it is for Democrats to regain the governor's office.
“Governors matter in this moment, now more than ever before, because governors are really a last line of defense that many constituents are going to have against just barbaric rulings that we’re seeing from this Supreme Court," Moore told The Associated Press.
Perez, who also served as assistant attorney general for civil rights during the Obama administration and was a county council member in Maryland's most populous jurisdiction in the suburbs of the nation's capital, said it's more important than ever for states to set the tone on crucial issues such as job creation, clean energy, health care and reproductive health.
“There are so many ways that we can set example for the rest of the country, and I think Maryland is one of the top opportunities to flip a seat from red to blue," Perez said.
While Democrats who control Maryland's legislature have been able to override many of Hogan's vetoes over the years, the governor has had impact. For example, he recently blocked a request to accelerate $3.5 million in annual spending for training to expand the number of people who can provide abortions in the state.
Franchot, who has kept an amiable working relationship with Hogan on a powerful state spending panel with three voting members, had urged Hogan to release the money.
“I think that should have been done immediately," Franchot said.
Gansler, who lost the Democratic primary in 2014 to then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who went on to lose to Hogan, said the past two elections have illustrated the dangers of choosing a Democrat who is too liberal.
“In order to truly fight climate change and bring back the Chesapeake Bay, we need to have a Democrat in office, and we cannot commit political suicide again by electing a Democrat in the primary who cannot win in the general election," Gansler said.
King, a progressive Democrat, said he believes the party has a great opportunity to flip the governor's office.
“In order to do that we need a candidate who’s going to inspire folks across the Democratic Party, and particularly inspire young people, people of color and people who are outraged by the Supreme Court decisions on abortion access and gun safety, and I think I’m the best positioned to do that," King said.
Jon Baron, a former nonprofit executive, and Ashwani Jain, a former official in Obama’s administration, also are running. Rushern Baker, a former Prince George’s County executive, announced he has suspended his campaign, though he is still appearing on the ballot. Jerome Segal, an activist, and Ralph Jaffe, a retired teacher, also are on the ballot.
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Brian Witte, The Associated Press