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How Maryland’s political parties ramped up their ground games for 2018

With Maryland’s governorship and General Assembly seats at stake in the 2018 election, the state’s Democratic and Republican parties are both testing new approaches to outreach and working more vigorously than in the past to boost turnout in their favor.

Armed with lists of independents and party affiliates who sat out recent midterm elections, party volunteers and candidates are canvassing neighborhoods virtually every weekend to convince voters that the upcoming races matter, focusing largely on battleground districts but also reaching into each other’s strongholds.

Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1 in Maryland, want to oust Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and shore up their veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly amid a surge of grass-roots activism and anger toward President Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the state.

Republicans are pushing to build on their 2014 success, when they captured the governorship in an upset and took over nine legislative seats during a year of ­record-low turnout for Democratic voters. They want to reelect Hogan and break the Democratic supermajority by flipping at least five Senate seats held by Democrats.

“The challenge at this point for both political parties is to make sure your base remains engaged and committed,” said John Willis, a University of Baltimore politics professor and former Maryland secretary of state who worked with past Democratic campaigns.

In 2014, voter turnout in the state dropped 11 percent compared with the previous gubernatorial election, including an 8 percent drop for registered Democrats. Some of the most significant declines occurred in Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — traditional Democratic strongholds.

Willis said registered Democrats could take back the governorship by increasing their turnout by four points, or about 80,000 people, noting that Hogan won the office with about 66,000 more votes than his opponent, then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D).

“The key to 2018 is mobilization and getting back to normal,” Willis said. “The margin can be closed very easily with a mobilization effort.”

To that end, the Democratic Party has embarked on a 10,000-household “listening tour” that will last through fall, asking residents what they want from elected leaders before developing an overarching message for upcoming elections. Then it will pivot toward trying to persuade voters to show up at the polls and back its nominees.

“Old-fashioned neighbor-to-neighbor conversations is the most effective tool in politics these days,” Maryland Democratic Party chair Kathleen Matthews said. “Data is crucial, but in terms of a process, it’s all about building trust and conversations with people.”

The Republican Party, flush with cash since Hogan took office and hoping down-ballot candidates can piggyback on the governor’s sky-high approval ratings, has been similarly active, deploying canvassers to swing districts with a new mobile app that flags residents who are likely to consider GOP candidates.

“It’s no secret we’re outnumbered in voter registration, but we believe we can capitalize on Hogan’s popularity and a tight data operation to make sure that our voters — starting with Republicans but also independents and Democrats who will vote for Republicans from time to time — are going to be there for us in the governor’s and General Assembly races,” Maryland GOP chair Dirk Haire said.

Both parties are trying to win over people like Perry Rose, a 51-year-old computer programmer who lives in a working-class neighborhood of eastern Baltimore County. He voted consistently as a Republican in the past but now describes himself as an independent, saying he grew disenchanted with the GOP in recent years.

Del. Christian J. Miele (R-Baltimore County), who is running for state Senate and was the first 2018 candidate to receive backing from Hogan, worked Rose’s neighborhood during a recent canvassing effort this month.

Rose recognized Miele from a recent stream cleanup event and greeted the candidate as he neared his property with campaign brochures, but didn’t commit to supporting him in the next election.

“I don’t know what you stand for, but I know you’re a good person, and I can at least say you’re at the top of my mind,” he said.

Miele asked Rose to call him later so he could lay out his policy positions.

“That’s why you door-knock — because you don’t know how someone like that is going to vote,” Miele said. “It sounds like he’ll support the person with the best ideas.”

Frederick resident Heather Scott-Fagan is another potential prize for both parties. The 27-year-old lab technician, who said she typically votes only in presidential elections, described herself to Democratic canvassers this month as strongly left-leaning but named nonpartisan redistricting — something Hogan has pushed for the past two years — as a top priority.

When asked whether she wants to see Hogan reelected, she replied that she would “rather see someone else.”

Instead of waiting until after the primaries, the state Democratic Party has launched its field operations and voter outreach — roughly a year in advance.

Trump’s election has bolstered Democratic recruiting.

Daryl Martin, a 62-year-old editor for government contractors who knocked on doors with the Frederick group this month, said she has not been involved in campaigning since 1972, when she stuffed mailboxes for then-Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.

“I did that and just disappeared until this election,” she said. “I got angry and decided I needed to do something.”

Martin and a partner knocked on 15 doors and reached four residents over nearly three hours, using printed spreadsheets that did not list homes in a geographical order.

Haire says the GOP mobile app, which uses data such as voting history and consumer habits to determine which residents might vote for the party’s candidates, gives them an advantage.

The day after Martin’s outing, Miele knocked on 35 doors in a two-hour period and reached five people, with his app providing logical routes.

The Democratic Party has similar technology but didn’t use it during the Frederick outing this month.

Both organizations are uploading residents’ responses to survey questions to build their databases and identify supporters, opponents or those considered persuadable.

Both parties are focused on political battlegrounds such as Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Frederick counties, all jurisdictions that Hogan won convincingly in 2014.

In Maryland’s 2016 Senate race, then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D), who won the seat, defeated House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) by 16 points in the Republican candidate’s home jurisdiction, but he lost in Frederick and Anne Arundel counties by 4.2 points and 1.4 points, respectively.

State Sen. Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick), one of the GOP’s top targets for 2018, said he feels confident about winning reelection if turnout is strong in the largely Democratic city of Frederick. Last weekend, he led more than 20 volunteers on a door-knocking campaign in his district.

“There’s a good chance of some degree of a blue tide this time around,” he said. “Often during an off year, voters go the opposite direction of president, and this one is saying some things that could motivate people . . . but I’m not going to rely on that. I’m going to concentrate on turning out the votes myself.”

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