Harry Hughes, now and forever the “Patron Saint of Lost Political Causes,” was the last great election miracle of the 20th century.

The former governor of Maryland died at his home on the Eastern Shore on March 12 at age 92. But his stunning victory over multiple big-name opponents in the 1978 Democratic gubernatorial primaries will be talked about as long as hopeless candidates tell themselves, “Hey, nobody gave Hughes a chance, did they? If he can do it …”

How big a miracle was it?

The late Gov. Harry Hughes

For long weeks, Hughes was running in low single digits in the polls, overshadowed by Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis and Baltimore City Council President Walter Orlinsky.

How big a miracle?

State Sen. Harry “Soft Shoes” McGuirk, as savvy a political calculator as anybody in the business, famously called Hughes “a lost ball in high grass.”

How big a miracle?

Hughes was so certain he was going to lose, there were days in the heat of the campaign when he and a top campaign aide would purchase a six-pack of beer and find a soft spot to relax for a few hours when every other candidate was out hustling for votes. They figured, What’s the use?

How big a miracle?

To this day, Venetoulis remembers speaking to a big campaign rally one night in East Baltimore. Standing at the back of the crowd, utterly alone and not a soul approaching him, was Hughes.

“I don’t think anybody knew he was there,” Venetoulis remembered this week when learning that Hughes had died.

So he stopped his speech and said, “By the way, joining us tonight is Harry Hughes. He’s there in the back. Let’s give him a big round of applause.” Venetoulis made it as polite a gesture as possible. Poor Hughes seemed utterly incapable of mounting any kind of electoral threat.

How big a miracle?

Days before the primary vote, all of the Democratic candidates met at WMAR-TV for a televised debate. Afterwards, some of them met for drinks at John Unitas’s Golden Arm Restaurant, along with a couple of reporters.

The contrast was remarkable. By this point, analysts figured neither Hughes nor Orlinsky had a chance. The smart money was on Lee or Venetoulis.

And so the scene became indelible. There was Orlinsky, resigned to losing, and playing it for laughs. He sat there with a big bowl of popcorn perched atop his head, telling jokes and exploding in big Fallstaffian whoops.

And a few feet away, there was Hughes, forlorn, sullen, visibly depressed, looking as if someone had just shot his dog.

He’d been climbing in the polls ever since a Baltimore Sun surprise endorsement of his candidacy  – on the front page, in fact – but he still seemed a long shot.

Until days later, when he won the whole damned thing.

Anyway, that’s how big a miracle it was.

As governor, he was a great environmental steward, but not so hot on getting smart people to watch over the state’s savings and loans. The scandal scarred Hughes’ reputation. He won reelection in 1982, but later failed in a bid for the U.S. Senate.

But if the end was tarnished, the beginning was a smash. The political mavens will always talk about it. It made Hughes the “Patron Saint of Lost Political Causes,” now and forever.

Michael Olesker

A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.