Labor Day marked the unofficial end of summer and the start of a patently uneven election season for Democrats and Republicans in Maryland.

On their end, Democrats enter the fall still enjoying their electoral mandate and regained single-party rule. Their power is bound only by the limits of voter preferences, the looming structural deficit and their own political will.

Indeed, Larry Hogan, the two-term Republican governor who challenged their unilateral power, is gone and, in his place, Gov. Wes Moore is positioned as a rising political star.

Moore’s first months as governor have been objectively good for the Maryland Democratic Party: He made smart cabinet appointments and executive hires. His public commentary has focused on broadly popular themes, such as public service, commitment to the state’s children, economic development, patriotism and reverence for veterans and state workers. Much like his Republican predecessor, Moore clearly understands the power of building goodwill with residents through nonpolitical means — like when he served as a “guest splasher” in the beloved Bird Bath of Camden Yards, embracing opportunities to meet and greet with the public.

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Moreover, the new Democratic governor’s cooperative relationship with Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones resulted in measurable headway in meeting some of their broadly shared goals, perhaps most notably on reproductive rights and the implementation of a service year option for high school graduates. And while Moore continues to advance an unapologetic Democratic agenda, he has largely done so without the divisive trappings of ideological purity.

To that point, the governor finished his first legislative session with a solid 53% job approval rating, as measured by a late-April Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner. Marylanders also viewed the governor’s politics as a progressive to moderate mix — the right place to be politically in a heavily blue state with a decidedly middle temperament.

Beyond Moore and specific to the 2024 cycle, Maryland Democrats are also reaping the benefits of their deep bench of high-quality candidates as the fields for U.S. Senate and congressional races take shape.

It’s much bleaker on the other side of the political aisle.

The nomination and quixotic campaigns of Trump-endorsed former Del. Dan Cox for governor and former League of the South member Michael Peroutka for attorney general damaged the party’s standing among the moderate and independent voters who built the foundation of the twice-winning Hogan coalition. And Maryland Republicans are still living in the aftermath of this electoral disaster.

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To be sure, many Republicans don’t see it this way. Some have instead placed blame on Hogan, arguing his party’s electoral chances were doomed by his persistent criticism of former President Donald Trump and refusal to back their party’s nominees for governor and attorney general last cycle. They point to a lack of Hogan coattails and party-building as the source of their current discontent.

Yet, the undeniable reality is that Hogan left office as one of the most persistently popular politicians in Maryland history who twice executed a clear blueprint for electoral success that many state Republicans chose not to emulate. That’s not to say Hogan’s chosen gubernatorial successor, former Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz, would have beaten Moore. But her candidacy wouldn’t have resulted in a historic electoral shellacking and related damage to the Republican bench.

Even so, it appears that Maryland Republicans remain disinclined to model Hogan’s way. A majority of their voters remain solidly behind Trump, despite his growing legal troubles and electoral track record.

That same electoral reality dissuaded Hogan from vying for his party’s presidential nomination and has fueled the possibility of a third-party presidential run. But those hoping to see Hogan’s name on a presidential ballot should temper their expectations. He’ll continue to keep the door to his national ambitions open, but he is a Reaganite at heart who has consistently stated his preference to do battle for the soul of the Republican Party rather than work against it.

Regardless of where Hogan’s future ambitions take him, Maryland Republicans must grapple with their current void of recognizable leaders.

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Because without pragmatic leadership, voters — specifically those outside of the party faithful — will have no choice but to define the Maryland Republican Party by whoever steps up to the microphone this coming electoral cycle.

Thus, Republicans who want to be an effective opposition to the Democratic legislative supermajority and rebuild their electoral prospects must identify public-facing standard-bearers grounded in the political realities of the state. If they don’t, and soon, those who believe that playing only to their base is a viable electoral strategy almost certainly will. It’s simply a numbers game and Republicans constitute just a quarter of Maryland voters.

The good news for Maryland Republicans is that they have talent among their dwindled ranks who could change their party’s fortunes. At the same time, even the most effective and electorally viable Republican lawmakers remain largely invisible to the average statewide voter.

But suppose they can move away from the extremist elements who have hurt their electoral prospects? In that case, viable candidates from their elected ranks or the private sector will undoubtedly emerge — in the way Larry Hogan did in 2014.

The first objective of political parties is to win elections. Republican voters need leaders willing to tell them hard truths about the politically possible and a party that cultivates candidates who can compete against their powerful and well-funded opposition. Thus, this fall is their time for choosing: Either learn from what got them here or get comfortable with another electoral cycle defined by Democratic dominance.

Mileah Kromer is director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics and associate professor of political science at Goucher College.

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