Md. Gov Larry Hogan’s legacy: a savvy Republican embraced by Democrats


Outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan flirted with running for president years before his term ended, openly weighing if trying to persuade Republican primary voters to nominate an unabashed Donald Trump-critic would be political suicide.

As he left office Wednesday, it remained an open question if the skills that catapulted Hogan to unusual popularity as the Republican governor of a Democratic state could be sold to a fractured Republican Party.

Any presidential bid would be built on his tenure in Maryland, where he forged rapport with the electorate through handling crises and a skilled public relations operation, deploying populist policies such as cutting tolls and putting air-conditioning in schools.

Pragmatism drove him to embrace issues many other Republicans did not — early and widespread mask mandates, new taxes on insurance companies to keep down the cost of Obamacare policies, gun-control laws, and a ban on conversion therapy for gay teens, all while staring down cancer and clashing with his own party as a leading voice during the pandemic. He delivered tax relief for retirees in his final year in office and presided as federal pandemic aid bloated the state’s balance sheets with multibillion dollar surpluses.

Hogan used that popularity as a weapon and a shield.

It insulated him from the fringes of his own party, allowing him to largely sidestep culture-war issues that marked the GOP, instead appealing to the ideological middle. He both cajoled Democrats to his side and shrugged it off when he alienated others, particularly in Baltimore.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who built a friendship with Hogan, described the governor as an executive who “put the interests of Marylanders over his own party’s interests.”

Hogan’s strategy also elevated his own interests, raising his national profile as an early and sharp anti-Trump voice willing to criticize the party’s embrace of Trump’s rhetoric. Hogan’s approach politically benefited just himself, as it did not build up the Republican Party in Maryland. But he nonetheless opened a narrow lane in the national conversation about a future direction for the GOP, one that appeals to conservative Democrats and independents.

The Un-Trump Republican: Gov. Larry Hogan’s radically normal model for the GOP

At times, he contradicted himself as he followed public opinion — calling the removal of Confederate monuments “political correctness run amok” but later organized the overnight removal of the most prominent one on State House grounds. But Hogan said he has no regrets about his tenure, including a widely derided decision to cancel the $2.9 billion Red Line — a critical transit project for economically-challenged Baltimore that he denigrated a “wasteful boondoggle.”

“It wasn’t going to accomplish anything,” he said in an interview. “This is one of those things where progressive politicians and the Democratic Party in Baltimore continue to harp on this, and they think somehow it was a mistake. But I don’t think it was.”

When the governor stumbled — spending nearly $9.5 million on coronavirus tests from South Korea that never worked, or having his signature transportation achievement, the Purple Line, 4.5 years behind schedule and $1.46 billion over budget, for instance — his job approval ratings never faltered much.

“He did a lot of negative things, but they never stuck to him,” said former state senator Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), one of the governor’s many longtime Democratic adversaries. “He ended up being the Teflon man.”

As Hogan enters civilian life, he can look back on his eight years in Annapolis as proof his political hypothesis worked: A savvy Republican attuned to the pulse of public opinion can be embraced by Democrats.

From congressman’s son to everyman

Hogan, 66, connected with voters through his handling of crises — unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015, followed quickly by Hogan’s cancer diagnosis, then the pandemic in his second term.

Along the way, the wealthy real estate developer and son of a congressman forged a reputation as a straight-talking everyman.

He directly tended to his own Facebook page throughout his tenure, maintaining a direct line of communication with hundreds of thousands of residents. At one point, the ACLU sued him — and won a settlement — for blocking hundreds of critics from commenting there. The page also occasionally posted doctored headlines on news articles implying one of his priorities had more support than it did, but it allowed him unfiltered messaging with people eager to hear what he had to say.

As the state party he supposedly led split into pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions and turned off many independents, Hogan kept his distance. He built his own political organization and deployed ads elevating his “Change Maryland” brand without the baggage of the state GOP.

“He’s really good at creating his own brand, which allowed him to succeed where many Republicans failed,” said former Maryland Republican Party chair Dirk Haire, who held the job for six of Hogan’s eight years and struggled to keep warring GOP factions together as the governor publicly derided the sitting president.

“He generated a lot of good will with how he handled his cancer diagnosis, and I think he was smart and strategic about channeling that good will into his brand and his agenda,” Haire said.

Hogan made his first big first impression in Maryland by calling in the state’s National Guard to quell unrest in Baltimore about Freddie Gray, a Black man who died in police custody, taking decisive action when many thought the mayor did not. Less than two months later, in June 2015, Hogan announced he had late Stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He held a news conference, he later wrote in his memoir, “Still Standing,” while on heavy painkillers from a bone-marrow biopsy that morning.

At turns tearful, he deployed the self-deprecating humor many found humanizing, saying his odds of beating the cancer were better than his odds of getting elected in the first place. He worked through chemotherapy treatment — which staffers documented in photos and videos that were later used in his reelection campaign materials — and received an outpouring of gifts from residents.

While Hogan said in an interview the experience “made me more reflective and more empathetic,” the struggle also resonated with residents and buoyed his popularity.

Between February and October of his inaugural year, Hogan’s job approval ratings shot up from 42 percent to 61 percent — at that time nearly the high water mark compared to his three predecessors — and those ratings climbed higher, according to Washington Post polling.

Hogan cultivated a regular Joe vibe, spending every Opening Day at Orioles Park shaking hands and guzzling beers with baseball fans — except in 2020, when it was canceled during the pandemic.

The pandemic presented an enduring crisis that put Hogan in front of television cameras every day for weeks and months, and he earned high marks from many for his decisive actions and open communication as he locked down the state. He was the second governor in the country to shut down schools, and he held regular public briefings with scientists and public health officials.

He soon clashed with Republicans skeptical of lockdowns and the vaccinations he championed, and eventually chafed with Democratic leaders who wanted to take a slower approach to reopening when he insisted that schools be allowed to give in-person instruction.

The actions that brought him praise from centrists came at a cost, as he infuriated part of his base. Over the years, he lost good will from conservative Republicans frustrated that he seemed more willing to work with Democrats than honor their own party. (He faced an unsuccessful impeachment attempt from the 2022 GOP nominee for governor, former Del. Dan Cox, who accused the governor of abusing his emergency power during the pandemic.)

Haire, who stepped down after widespread Republican losses and infighting in the 2022 election, said a lot of Hogan’s GOP critics overlook the political reality Hogan faced.

“I think a lot of Republicans don’t appreciate how much they benefited from having Larry Hogan,” Haire said. “You’re not going to turn Maryland into Mississippi, it’s just not a thing. I think Larry Hogan understood that, and I think he governed as conservatively as he thought that he could.”

Leadership through defense

Hogan never had a laundry list of conservative policy goals and campaigned that way, promising in 2014 he’d be “playing goalie” against liberals.

And then he spent eight years on defense against a Democratic supermajority in the General Assembly.

“I stopped a lot of bad things from happening which is, you know, what I promised to do,” Hogan said in a recent interview, though he did not…

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