Larry Hogan Isn’t Coming to Save the Republican Party

The governor of Maryland is betting his future on a kinder, gentler post-Trump GOP. Good luck with that.

The Atlantic / Getty

When you press him on it, Larry Hogan will admit that he’s faintly amused by all the media adulation. As the Republican governor of Maryland, he has enjoyed glowing coverage for standing up to President Donald Trump. He is hailed as a Brave Truth-Teller, a Leader With Integrity, a Republican Who Gets It. In truth, the bar is just really low.

“There are so few Republicans willing to say anything that’s not 100 percent in lockstep with the president,” he told me with a chuckle during a recent phone interview. “So when I do say something that disagrees, people say: Wow! A Republican speaks out!

Naturally, Hogan is not above exploiting this dynamic as he promotes his new book. Still Standing: Surviving Cancer, Riots, a Global Pandemic, and the Toxic Politics That Divide America belongs to a distinct subgenre of sanitized political memoirs designed to draw attention to the author’s presidential aspirations. To that end, it’s already succeeded. On his publicity tour, he’s routinely introduced as a prospective 2024 candidate. And as a popular blue-state governor with a pragmatic streak, Hogan is catnip for a certain kind of centrist pundit who has long fantasized about the heroic moderate riding in on a white horse to deliver the GOP from barbarism.

But figures like Hogan have a history of attracting more column inches than votes in Republican presidential primaries. (See: John Kasich, Jon Huntsman, assorted other Jo(h)ns.) What makes him an interesting case study is not his moderation, but how he’s positioned himself in opposition to a deeply unpopular incumbent who will—win or lose—remain a noisy force in conservative politics. The logic of a Hogan candidacy is premised on the idea that when Trump leaves office, Trumpism will leave with him. There’s reason to be skeptical.

For much of our interview, Hogan seemed as if he were playing a game of political-aphorism bingo. He spoke of his desire to build a “big tent” party. He explained that “successful politics is about addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division.” When we got too far into the conversation without mentioning his presidential ambitions, he proactively offered a nonanswer to my nonquestion: “People ask me what my plans are for the future. I say, ‘I’m not that concerned about what my future is in the Republican Party, but I’m really concerned about having a future for the Republican Party.’”

Hogan did not vote for Trump in 2016, and publicly considered running against the president in 2020 before ultimately bowing out. He clearly believes the current administration has damaged his party, and he’s happy to run through some of the low points. (Thus we arrive at the “Republican speaks out!” portion of the conversation.) He voiced support for the Trump impeachment hearings, and in 2018 he called back Maryland’s National Guard unit from the southern border in protest of Trump’s child-separation policy.

Hogan’s bluntest disapproval is reserved for Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. By refusing to take the threat seriously early on, he argues, the president severely hampered the government’s response. “We got behind in the beginning and let the virus get out of hand,” he told me. “The president downplaying the virus and saying things like it was going to disappear or it was just the sniffles—the messaging was all wrong.”

He also expressed frustration with Trump’s incendiary response to this summer’s anti-racist protests. “I don’t think the president is helping with that discussion at all,” he told me, adding, “The Republican Party is certainly having a hard time adding anything.”

These critiques may not be particularly incisive or original, but Hogan’s admirers give him credit for stating the obvious. There are, after all, only so many interesting things to say about a naked emperor.

Besides, his purpose in bringing up these presidential failures is to contrast them with his own record in Maryland, where his approval rating currently hovers just below 80 percent, thanks to unusually strong support from Democrats and Black voters. In his book and in interviews, Hogan frames his governorship as a model of competence and common sense. While other states struggle to combat the virus, his aggressive public-health response—including the purchase, earlier this year, of 500,000 tests from South Korea—has drawn national plaudits. And as major cities continue to face unrest, Hogan has pointed to his own handling of the 2015 protests following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody as an example of respecting peaceful demonstrations while cracking down on riots. “I don’t want to sound like I’m plugging my book,” he told me, “but I would suggest people read my book and how we handled the situation in Baltimore.”

But those who have actually dug into his claims are not universally impressed. It turns out, for example, that many of those South Korean tests have yet to be used, and The Washington Post has questioned why he didn’t buy less expensive tests from a domestic manufacturer that were available at the same time.

Hogan’s narrative of the Baltimore protests has also drawn scrutiny. In a viral interview this week, The View’s Sunny Hostin confronted the governor over his decision to describe Gray in his book as a “Crips gang-connected, street-level drug dealer,” when no such gang affiliation has been established. And while his book asserts that “the justice system has never fully answered the question” of how Gray died, Hogan fails to mention a Justice Department investigation of the Baltimore police department that found widespread discriminatory practices targeting Black neighborhoods. Elsewhere, the governor has been criticized for canceling a major transit project that would have disproportionately served Black Baltimore residents.

Throughout our conversation, Hogan repeatedly talked about the need to build a more “inclusive” Republican Party, one that reaches out to voters beyond its base. But his failure to answer the obvious follow-up questions—Who? How? With what kind of message?—speaks to the difficulties that lie ahead not only for him, but for the GOP.

While Hogan’s diverse, bipartisan support in Maryland is genuinely impressive, it will never be replicated at the national level as long as his party is tainted by Trumpism. If the president loses in November, after all, he won’t shuffle off into a quiet retirement and take up painting. The tweets will keep coming, the TV interviews will continue, and Trump’s insistent weighing in on everything will become only easier to indulge. Meanwhile, people such as Donald Trump Jr. and Tucker Carlson will give conservative audiences access to the red-meat diet they’ve become accustomed to. And the GOP lawmakers elected during Trump’s presidency—many of whom won their primaries thanks to his endorsement—will ensure that the “MAGAfication” of the party is not easily undone.

None of this is necessarily permanent, of course. Parties can change. But it will require a lot more than a single Republican speaking out.