The Maryland Governor’s Race Was a Rematch of Romney and Obama Consultants — With a Very Different Outcome

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Maryland Gov.-elect Larry Hogan speaks at a news conference, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014, in Annapolis, Md. Hogan campaigned relentlessly against tax increases and stuck to a pro-business message to win a big upset against Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in the race for governor in heavily Democratic Maryland. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Maryland's Gov.-elect, Republican Larry Hogan, speaks at a news conference the day after his surpise victoryPhoto: Patrick Semansky/AP

The ads were devastating: “They’re implementing just ridiculous taxes — a tax on rain,” a woman named Kandie says in one, staring straight at the camera in front of a black background. Her speech is unpolished and clearly unrehearsed. Kandie is African-American and female, a paradigmatic Democratic voter in a solidly blue state like Maryland. But this year, Kandie says, she’s going to vote Republican for the first time ever. “What makes things crazy is when you keep voting in the same party and there is no change; actually, they call it insanity.” In the companion spot, a woman named Heather, freckled and blue-eyed, is almost seething as she says, “I don’t think it’s believable when Anthony Brown says he’s not going to raise taxes again. It’s what he knows.” She adds: “They’ve done it like 40 times.”

The two commercials are the creation of a Republican media team led by a consultant named Russ Schriefer. Women both white and black, Schriefer had seen from polling data, would be among those very likely to feel like Maryland’s Democratic Establishment wasn’t doing anything to help them. “It was all about finding soft Democrats,” he said, “and giving them that permission to vote Republican.” (“Soft” here is campaign-speak for “persuadable.”) Schriefer had signed on to the governor’s race a year prior, when no one gave GOP challenger Larry Hogan the faintest chance at beating Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, an African-American and former Army officer. On Tuesday night, Hogan beat Brown by five points, perhaps the most surprising result in a night full of long-expected Republican triumphs.  

You could say Schriefer had been an underdog, too. In 2012, he and his partner Stuart Stevens had been lead consultants on Mitt Romney’s disastrous presidential run. “They were banishèd,” one Republican strategist told me, using the Romeo and Juliet pronunciation. An overstatement, surely, but not without its truth. Schriefer told me that in the early going, “there were some folks who would say, ‘Yeah, you guys have a good record, but the whole Romney thing — our donors don’t want us to hire Romney people. We’re going to take a pass.’” Governor Chris Christie asked Schriefer to consult on his off-year reelection in 2013 — “A nice vote of confidence at a time when we certainly needed it,” Schriefer says — but the top candidates for the 2014 midterms turned elsewhere. Stevens signed up with Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, who faced a stiff tea-party challenge. Schriefer agreed to take on the long-shot Hogan in Maryland.

Hogan’s opponent, Anthony Brown, made a move of his own, retaining the services of Democrat Jim Messina. Messina, as the manager of President Obama’s reelection campaign, is the man who had put Schriefer and Stevens out of work two years prior. Brown, clearly jazzed to have pulled down such a big name, went so far as to hold a press conference announcing Messina’s hiring. “I am humbled to have him as a part of my campaign,” Brown said at the event. Messina agreed that “Just like President Obama’s race, this is a historic election,” and called Brown “the right leader to make Maryland better for Marylanders.” In hindsight, the arrangement might have been an optical move rather than a substantive one, meant mostly to intimidate Brown’s lesser-connected challengers in the Democratic primary. There were no duels between the former Romney and Obama strategists on cable TV, no tense run-ins in the debate green room. By all accounts, while Messina helped with direct-mail strategy and national fund-raising, and an associate at his firm helped with the field program, they were not involved on the day-to-day level. In any case, Messina may have had more high-profile business to attend to: Prime Minister David Cameron had hired Messina to run his reelection bid in the U.K.(Messina and his firm declined to comment for this piece.)

For his part, Schriefer set about doing the block-and-tackle work of campaigning, searching for Brown’s biggest weaknesses and cutting ads to exploit them. Among the most promising signs in the polling, he told me, was that more voters thought that Maryland was “on the wrong track” than on the right one, a gap that continued to widen over the course of the race. When asked whether they would vote for incumbent governor Martin O’Malley for a third term if they could, 58 percent of voters said they would not. From there, Schriefer identified economic opportunity as the main point of emphasis for Hogan’s team: they would repeat endlessly that O’Malley and Brown had “raised taxes 40 times,” including hikes on cigarette and gas taxes — “things that affect blue-collar Democrats,” Schriefer said. The coup de grâce was what Schriefer dubbed “the rain tax,” actually a federally mandated levy on pollution from storm run-off, according to a debunking in the Washington Post, but no matter. The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis wrote that every single Maryland voter he talked to on Election Day mentioned the rain tax to him.

Brown turned sharply negative in defense, trying to paint Hogan as a right-winger, harping on his anti-abortion views and opposition to banning assault weapons. (“Assault weapons don’t belong in Maryland, and neither do Larry Hogan’s dangerous ideas,” the narrator warns in one grim ad.) “They all probably polled great for Brown and terribly for Hogan,” Schriefer says of the attack lines, “but they weren’t on point. It wasn’t what the race was about.” Schriefer and Ashley O’Connor, his firm’s managing partner, countered with the ads featuring Kandie and Heather — the “permission” spots — and an ad starring Hogan’s daughter, saying her father posed no threat to reproductive rights in Maryland. As the campaign went on, Brown’s unfavorable rating ticked up until, by late October, it was higher than his favorable rating.

On October 31, Messina was in England, speaking at a retreat for Prime Minister Cameron’s supporters. “I have never, ever lost a campaign in my life,” he boasted. (That may be inaccurate: He was involved in Alaska Democrat Tony Knowles’s failed Senate bid in 2004.) Back in the Maryland, Schriefer worked out of the Hogan office in the morning, and then went trick-or-treating with his 6-year-old daughter in Chevy Chase. Four days later, despite a two-to-one Democratic advantage in voter registration, high turnout in the Republican-friendly counties outside Baltimore pushed Hogan to victory.

In the end, Schriefer and Stevens won every race they were involved in this year. Stevens regained visibility as a fierce defender of Senator Cochran, who survived his primary, and Schriefer worked with the Republican Governors Association to help Paul LePage, the governor of Maine, pull out a closely contested race. If Chris Christie runs for president in 2016, it’s a good bet Schriefer will be there with him. Stevens will certainly be heavily courted, too. 

I asked Schriefer how he dealt with the boom-and-bust nature of the work. “I have a much better perspective on it now,” he said. “On election night, I found myself to be much more even-keel. Just two years ago, we were sitting in a Westin in Boston in tears. Two years later, we’re sitting in a Westin in Annapolis, high-fiving and popping Champagne. You’re an idiot one day and a genius the next.”