Republican Larry Hogan will be the first candidate in two decades to mount a statewide general election bid using taxpayer donations.
Hogan's campaign said Wednesday that it will accept public financing, an unusual move that reflects the GOP's uphill political fight against Maryland's better-funded and more powerful Democratic Party.
The decision will give Hogan's camp a $2.6 million check from state coffers to pay for his race against Democrat Anthony G. Brown, who has proved himself a formidable fundraiser by collecting more than $12 million for the primary election alone.
With public financing, Hogan will have strict limits on how much he can spend. Political observers say most candidates would avoid those constraints if possible.
"Nobody does this because they want to," said Donald F. Norris, chair of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "They do this because they have to — and they have to because they can't raise substantial amounts of money in any other way."
Hogan's campaign manager, Steve Crim, echoed that sentiment in an interview. "The Democratic Party has such a stranglehold on the money in Maryland," Crim said. "This will help us level the playing field."
But other observers said that with Republicans nationwide aiming to capitalize on discontent and hoping for sweeping midterm victories, Hogan could have raised enough cash from outside groups if he wanted to finance a bid on his own.
"I think he didn't want to attract the kind of out-of-state money that normally flows into these races — mostly far-right money. That's not the kind of profile he'd want to project," said Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University.
Taking large donations from the conservative billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch, for example, is not great strategy to win a general election in deep blue Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, Crenson said.
"The Democrats would make hay out of that. In Maryland that kind of attack has legs," Crenson said.
Hogan's decision also marks a departure from the usual partisan narrative in which Democrats decry corporate money in politics and Republicans embrace a corporation's right to free speech.
"Public financing shows that we're not beholden to special interests," Crim said. "In this state, Republican donors are the grass-roots, small-dollar donors."
Any dollar Hogan raises would be deducted from the $2.6 million given to him by the state, said Jared DeMarinis, director of campaign finance and candidacy at the Maryland State Board of Elections. Cash has accumulated in the public financing system from its inception in 1974 until 2010, when lawmakers removed the voluntary check-off from tax forms that directed donations to the fund.
The sum from the state isn't the only cash that will be at Hogan's disposal. Both campaigns can accept a total of $3.7 million in from their respective state and county political parties, DeMarinis said. That would bring the maximum amount Hogan can spend on the election to $6.3 million.
"Whether Larry can match Brown dollar for dollar isn't the point," said Republican strategist and former lawmaker Don Murphy, who lobbied in Annapolis for the state's public financing system.
"He's got to ante up. He's got to get enough to get up on television and get an organization. But beyond that, it's kind of overkill," Murphy said.
Brown, the lieutenant governor, flexed his fundraising prowess in the primary election, out-raising his closest competitor 3-1 in 2013 and accumulating $1 million in a single day in May during a fundraiser with former President Bill Clinton.
Brown campaign manager Justin Schall said his camp doesn't expect to raise another $12 million before the Nov. 4 general election.
"We raised that money over 31/2 years, but I have no doubt that we will have significant resources to compete," he said. "There is a very large groundswell of support that we have seen in fundraising since we won the nomination."
When both Hogan and Democrat Del. Heather R. Mizeur used the state's public financing system for the primary, it was the first time candidates tapped the long-dormant fund since Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in 1994.
Hogan had an option to either continue using the system for the general election, putting him at a big cash disadvantage against Brown, or to try to raise cash on his own. Sauerbrey said the pot of cash available now is larger than when she narrowly lost to Democrat Parris N. Glendening.
"For the Republicans in this state, needless to say, it is a lot harder to raise money than it is for Democrats," Sauerbrey said. Public financing "does give candidates an amount that is in some degree enough to compete. But when you're outspent as heavily as I was — and as I suspect Larry will be — it's a disadvantage."
Sauerbrey's 5,933-vote loss to Glendening came after he spent several times more than her. It was the closest the state party came to the governor's mansion until Robert L. Ehrlich won in 2002.
In his first race, Ehrlich broke state records and raised $10.4 million. When he lost to Martin O'Malley in 2006, Ehrlich raised almost $18 million. In his 2010 unsuccessful rematch against O'Malley, Ehrlich spent about $7 million.
"Ehrlich was an anomaly in our party in his ability to raise outside cash," said Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. "Those kinds of numbers, for a Republican in Maryland, are awfully hard to get to. And if you get to that, you had to spend a lot of money to get to there."
Cluster said Hogan's existing fundraising operation will be moved to the state party, which will work to raise money on Hogan's behalf.
If the state and local parties can raise the maximum they're allowed to give by law, Hogan would have a few thousand less than Ehrlich's least-costly campaign, but Hogan would not have had to spend any time or cash raising money.
"It's a different strategy," Cluster said. "He's actually getting $2.6 million without having to spend a dime on fundraising."