A Most Agreeable Man

A dying breed of GOP moderate, Larry Hogan has handled the rise of Donald Trump better than any other Republican politician.

Maryland governor Larry Hogan is known as a moderate, but his victory party at Union Jack’s British Pub is a decidedly Republican affair. Square-jawed young professionals mill about with mustachioed suburban dads, drinking Yuengling from plastic cups and munching soft pretzels and cocktail meatballs from chafing dishes set up on the pool table. A band of oldsters in Hogan-for-Governor T-shirts warms up the crowd with a selection of Boomer standards from Creedence Clearwater Revival to John Cougar Mellencamp. It’s a primary-night party, but no one is minding the results too closely. Hogan is running unopposed. He takes the stage to the theme from Rocky promptly at nine, and the crowd happily joins in with chants of “Four more years!”

“Ladies and gentlemen, the returns are in,” the governor says with a smile. “Thanks to all of you, we have won a landslide victory tonight, and we’re moving on to the general election in November.”

The result may have been a formality, but the celebratory mood is genuine. Hogan is a rare bird in American politics, a broadly popular Republican governor in a very blue state; Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one in Maryland. The son of a congressman, Hogan spent most of his career as a real estate developer, amid failed runs for House seats in 1981 and 1992 and four years serving as Secretary of Appointments (2003-07) under the state’s last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich. During the tenure of two-term Democrat Martin O’Malley, Hogan again made a statewide name for himself by launching a grassroots organization, Change Maryland, to push back against what he saw as the state’s excessive taxing and spending.

In 2014, Hogan defeated Anthony Brown, O’Malley’s heir apparent, in a campaign where he hammered relentlessly on economic issues and the folly of Maryland’s one-party government. In office, Hogan has acquired a reputation for affable, moderate pragmatism and assembled a coalition spanning Republicans, independents, and conservative Democrats. He likes to point out that two-thirds of the state’s Democrats approve of his job as governor. Hogan is favored to win again in November, which would make him the first Republican governor of Maryland to be reelected in more than 60 years.

Hogan’s story is odder still because he is one of a breed of politico that has been proclaimed dying for years. The main electoral storylines of the past decade have involved both parties fleeing the center, with the election of Donald Trump and the ascendance among the Democrats of hard-left progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren only taking things a step further. The same has held true of the general public: Study after study shows that Americans increasingly dislike and distrust members of the opposite political persuasion, form fewer relationships with them, and decreasingly interact with them at all. And yet here’s Hogan, in a room full of Republicans, talking about “disagreeing without being disagreeable,” laying the bipartisanship on thick:

As I was taking the oath of office, I said to those who would drive us to the extremes of either party: Let me remind you that Maryland has always been a state of middle temperament. And I asked that we try to seek that middle ground where we could all stand together… . Instead of letting Maryland become just like Washington, let’s send a message to Washington and let’s set an example to the rest of the nation by putting the politics aside and coming together for all Marylanders.

A commitment to bipartisanship is not the only thing that accounts for Hogan’s success, of course. During his first year in office, he developed a reputation for steady leadership, especially during the rioting following the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police. Working with the city’s Democratic mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Hogan declared a state of emergency, mobilized the state’s National Guard, and temporarily moved his offices to Baltimore to address the crisis directly. He toured inner-city neighborhoods to meet with disaffected citizens and promised to restore order to the city.

“The governor was elected, and when you’re elected you’re thrown right into your first session. And then about a week after that we had the Baltimore city riots,” says Doug Mayer, Hogan’s deputy campaign manager. “He was thrown right into international news, and I think he proved to the people of Maryland through that experience that he was a leader and someone they could depend on. At an uncertain time, he was a steady hand, and he was gonna run the state of Maryland competently. Two months after that he got cancer.”

In June 2015, Hogan announced he had been diagnosed with a “very advanced and very aggressive” lymphoma. He said he would stay in office while undergoing a punishing chemotherapy treatment that would “beat the hell out of me” but likely completely eradicate the disease. His struggle played out in the public eye for over a year, and the disease took an obvious physical toll. He looks older, more weather-beaten, and now wears his hair in a buzz cut. But the fight humanized him with voters who respected his straight talk and good humor about his illness.

And there’s the economic good news to campaign on this season. Hogan touts the fact that Maryland’s business climate has improved substantially on his watch, citing metrics like CNBC’s “Top States for Business” scorecard, which last year ranked Maryland’s state economy 7th in the nation (up from 24th in 2014) and its overall business climate as 25th (up from 35th).

Altogether, Hogan’s proven to be a potent package for winning over voters. When he first took office, 42 percent of Maryland residents approved of him, with 24 percent disapproving. By that October, his approval had swelled to 61 percent, and he hasn’t looked back: A Morning Consult poll this year found Hogan the country’s second-most popular governor, with 68 percent approving and a mere 17 percent disapproving of his leadership.

“After all the progress that we have made together over the past four years, now two-thirds of all the people in Maryland think that Maryland is heading in the right direction,” Hogan notes at his victory party. “But not everyone agrees. There are six percent of the people in Maryland who strongly disapprove of the job that we’ve been doing—and every single one of them was running for governor.”

Hogan may also be the Republican politician who has best handled the rise of Donald Trump. His opponents have frequently tried to tie him to the president and capitalize on Maryland voters’ distaste for the present head of state. (Trump’s approval rating is 21 points underwater in the state.) But Hogan has never been aboard the Trump train: He declined to attend the 2016 National Republican Convention and has publicly stated he didn’t vote for the president. He has also frequently criticized Trump’s actions, most recently by recalling Maryland National Guardsmen from the U.S.-Mexico border in protest against the White House’s policy of separating children from their illegal immigrant parents at the border.

Trump has declared fatwas on insubordinate Republicans for far less, and yet Hogan remains untouched by the president’s itchy Twitter finger. There are several reasons for this. First, like most bullies, Trump rarely picks fights he isn’t sure he’ll win, and there is no MAGA hat-toting Republican to take Hogan’s place in Maryland. The political realities of the state are clear: “I think it would hurt the governor if he came out as a strong supporter for Trump,” one Hogan supporter tells me, “and I think it would hurt the governor if the president came out as a strong supporter of Hogan.”

But it’s also likely that Hogan’s affability helps him as much with the president as it has with Democratic voters. Towson University professor Richard Vatz draws a contrast between Hogan and nationally prominent anti-Trump Republicans like Arizona senator Jeff Flake: “He’s not out to make people see that he has been treated badly by Trump and you ought to therefore reject Trump.” “Hogan’s position has not been ‘reject Trump,’ ” Vatz says. “It’s been: ‘I’m not Trump, and you should not vote according to your feelings on Donald Trump—just look at my policies.’ And so he doesn’t make a big deal out of Trump unless he’s asked about Trump, as opposed to somebody like Flake who is now identified as the anti-Trump Republican.”

This isn’t to say that some Hogan supporters don’t worry that the president might get irritated with him anyway. “He’s kind of done that thing where he declares war on Republicans that aren’t fully behind him,” said Sam Schlaich, a recent law school graduate I meet at Hogan’s victory party. “Let’s just say that I think Hogan’s a smart enough guy to represent Maryland’s interest without stepping on any toes in D.C.”

Schlaich’s friend Warren Ramsey cuts in: “Donald Trump’s not someone where you want to step on his toes. He’ll, like, break your toes. Hogan’s way too smart to do that.”

So far, Hogan is succeeding where others who have tried to straddle the Trump line have failed. In neighboring Virginia’s gubernatorial election last fall, Republican Ed Gillespie was soundly trounced following a campaign in which he struggled to assemble a cohesive message about the president and managed to alienate both the Trump faithful in the ruby-red south of the state and the more moderate Republicans in the D.C. suburbs. After that race, Trump took to Twitter to suggest Gillespie had lost due to insufficient loyalty. Perhaps Trump’s truce with Hogan will continue only as long as the governor keeps winning. And Hogan faces a serious challenge in his bid for reelection.

Going into Tuesday’s primaries, the eight-odd Democratic candidates covered more or less all the stock characters of left-wing politics. There was Rushern Baker, the centrist technocrat from Prince George’s County who had the backing of the state’s party establishment. There was Richard Madaleno, the gay state senator who tried to position himself as the race’s most anti-Trump candidate with a head-scratching TV spot in which he kissed his husband and then turned to the camera to say, “Take that, Trump!” There was Jim Shea, an attorney and policy wonk who previously served as chairman of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents. And then there was Ben Jealous—the youngest-ever head of the NAACP and the race’s full-throated Bernie-style progressive. Jealous’s proposals include statewide single-payer Medicare-for-All, full-day pre-kindergarten programs, tuition-free college, and an end to “this era of mass incarceration.”

Most analysts and pollsters predicted a dead heat between Jealous and Baker. “Sometime tonight, one of them will limp across the finish line,” Hogan joked in his victory speech, “maybe to, like, 20-something percent of the vote.” But Jealous pulled off a surprise triumph, roundly trouncing Baker and the rest while collecting nearly 40 percent of the vote.

Hogan has wasted no time drawing a contrast between Jealous’s hard leftism and his own more economically cautious stances. “If you like Martin O’Malley, you’re gonna love this guy,” he told reporters at a press conference on June 27. “He’s talking about tens of billions of dollars in tax increases that will cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs and devastate the great economy that we’ve made so much progress on.”

But Jealous presents a problem for Hogan that a candidate like Baker did not. Hogan’s greatest strength has been that Democratic attacks against his policies have largely rolled off him. In a campaign between two moderates like Hogan and Baker, it would have been hard to rouse Democrats to support a platform that, in many ways, looked similar to Hogan’s own. “The Democrats are not energized by an active dislike of Larry Hogan,” Richard Vatz says. “Part of this is due to the fact that Larry Hogan is a cancer survivor, and he also doesn’t have the provocative style that tends to energize people who oppose him.”

Jealous, on the other hand, will easily distinguish his policy vision from Hogan’s and potentially be able to diminish the role voters’ personal feelings play in their evaluation of the two men. If Jealous is able to follow the progressive playbook of inspiring heavy turnout among infrequent voters, while peeling off some members of Hogan’s own coalition, it could spell trouble for the incumbent.

“We will beat Larry Hogan the same way we won the primary,” Jealous told the Washington Post. “Talking to everyone, in every corner of the state, about kitchen-table issues.”

In other words, the thing Maryland voters will have to choose between as they go to the polls this November is a simple option between two styles of government: one that promises lower taxes, increased wages, economic development, and subtle curtailments of government power, and one that promises a grand explosion of state government and enormous tax increases to fund sweeping, ambitious state programs for healthcare, education, and the like. It’s an election about the issues, and it is hard to imagine Larry Hogan complaining about that.

The Weekly Standard
Andrew Egger
June 29, 2018