Like all Republicans these days, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan can’t avoid questions about President Donald Trump. He’s just worked, more assiduously than most, to avoid answering them. During a recent Fourth of July parade, a reporter asked for his opinion about a White House commission’s request for states to hand over extensive personal information on voters. The day before, Maryland’s Board of Elections had denied the request.
“I don’t have anything to do with the Board of Elections at all,” Hogan said. “It’s a completely independent body.”
“Do you have a personal opinion?” the reporter asked.
“I don’t need to have an opinion. It’s totally out of my hands.”
That kind of evasion has become the norm for Hogan, and it’s easy to see why. Whereas 64 percent of all Marylanders disapprove of Trump, 71 percent of the state’s registered Republicans do. (Trump won the state’s GOP primary by 30 points.) “Whatever Hogan says, he’s going to annoy someone,” said Susan Turnbull, a former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party. “So he just doesn’t say anything.”
That strategy might suffice right now for Hogan, who has a higher approval rating (73 percent) than all but one governor in America, according to a Morning Consult poll in April. But his broad popularity is not necessarily a “catastrophe for Democrats,” as Washingtonian put it in January. Looking ahead to next year’s election, a number of factors—from Trump’s drag on down-ballot Republicans, to Hogan’s own increasingly unpopular policies, to the emerging field of Democratic candidates—reveal that he is much more vulnerable to losing the governor’s mansion than the conventional wisdom suggests.
Hogan, 61, first entered politics in 1982 when he ran for the congressional seat once held by his father. But he lost in the Republican primary. He tried again a decade later, and lost in the general election to incumbent Steny Hoyer. Finally, in 2003, Governor Bob Ehrlich gave Hogan his first government job: a cabinet post in charge of filling government appointments. Martin O’Malley’s defeat of Ehrlich in 2006 ended Hogan’s tenure, and he went on to create a watchdog organization that attacked the new administration. His work at Change Maryland, which included tallying O’Malley’s tax hikes, provided the springboard for his longshot victory in 2014, when he ran as a pro-business, tax-cutting moderate against O’Malley’s lifeless lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown. As governor, he endeared himself even more to Marylanders when he overcame a public battle with stage 3 non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2015.
But Trump has complicated Hogan’s job. During last year’s presidential campaign, Hogan refused to support his party’s nominee; on Election Day, he wrote his father’s name on the ballot instead. After Trump won, however, Hogan adjusted his political calculus. He made gestures of support for the president, like attending his inauguration and telling people to “give the new administration a chance,” while avoiding either endorsing or rejecting Trump’s agenda.
Hogan has been similarly noncommittal as the state’s top executive. He allowed 15 bills to become law during the last legislative session without his signature, including a measure that requires the state to fund Planned Parenthood if it loses federal dollars. “He’ll do anything to avoid taking a position,” said a top state official and member of the Democratic Party.
But local pols say that when Hogan attempts to become the state’s first Republican governor to win reelection since 1954, he won’t be able to keep dodging questions—which will put him at risk of alienating either his base or the independents he won over in 2014. “When he hits the campaign trail, it’s going to be very different,” said Rich Madaleno, a Democratic state senator running for the party’s nomination. “There will be debates, candidate forums, other events. He’s going to have to start answering questions.” (He will also face harsher criticism than he did earlier in his term, when he was fighting cancer.)
Hogan’s tenuous grip on power is reflected in the same polls often cited to describe his invulnerability. A Washington Post survey in March found that 65 percent of Marylanders approve of his job performance, and yet, only 39 percent said they would back his re-election. Moreover, he’s already taken a hit since Trump took office: His job-approval rating has fallen six points since September 2016. One likely reason was his refusal to take a stand on Trump’s travel ban: 74 percent of Marylanders thought it “absolutely necessary” their governor speak out against the proposal. Hogan also wouldn’t let Attorney General Brian Frosh sue the administration over it, so the General Assembly passed a joint resolution granting Frosh that authority.
Beyond the Trump effect, Hogan has another headwind to navigate in 2018: the fundamentals of the state’s electorate. Hogan’s upset victory three years ago was due, in part, to Maryland’s historically low voter turnout. There was an 11 percent overall drop from the 2010 gubernatorial election, and just 46 percent of registered Democrats voted—an eight percent decrease from 2010. That’s unlikely to repeat next year, according to John Willis, a University of Baltimore politics professor and Maryland’s secretary of state from 1995-2003. The most dramatic decreases in voting in 2014 came in large Democratic strongholds like Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. “These are precisely the parts of the state where people are most galvanized by what’s going on in Washington,” Willis said. “There are a lot of reasons why they won’t stay home this time.”
Midterm elections usually benefit the party that doesn’t hold the White House, and Trump is likely to spur higher turnout among Democrats. In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, that can make all the difference. When Hogan won in 2014, for instance, he received 32,000 fewer votes than the total number of Democrats who voted in Maryland’s 2016 primary. If Democrats show up next year, the math won’t be there for him.
Hogan is expected to run a locally oriented race, but it won’t be so easy due to a factor beyond his control. The two times a Republican gubernatorial candidate has won the general election in modern Maryland history—in 2002 and 2014—there was not a coinciding Senate contest that year. In 2018, there will be: Democratic Senator Ben Cardin is up for re-election, meaning national issues will be in the forefront of voters’ minds and more money will pour into advertising and mobilization.
“That also means that there will be a Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, someone who will undoubtedly need to be a Trump fan and Trump backer to win the primary,” said Madaleno, noting the president’s popularity in the Maryland GOP. “So Hogan’s little intraparty situation is going to get far more complicated.” (Maryland’s last GOP governor, Bob Ehrlich, lost re-election in 2006, when there was a coinciding Senate race and another deeply unpopular Republican president: George W. Bush.)
As they say, you can’t beat somebody with nobody. But well-known Democrats are already lining up to oust Hogan: Madaleno, former chair of the NAACP Ben Jealous, and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker have all declared their candidacy. The race is also drawing national attention already, with Senator Bernie Sanders’s endorsement of Jealous on Thursday.
University of Maryland political scientist Michael Hanmer argues that Hogan’s 2014 win was enabled by Democrats’ complacency and the lackluster campaign of Anthony Brown, who lost the independent vote by 28 percent. “If their nominee can solidify the Democratic base in a way that Brown couldn’t and appeal to independents, then that’s going to be significant,” he said.
Hogan doesn’t have major achievements to boast about on the campaign trail. The most he’s done is lower some tolls and order public schools to start after Labor Day. He hasn’t delivered on rolling back most of the O’Malley tax increases he pilloried, to great effect, three years ago. A competent candidate could easily seize on these and other vulnerabilities, such as his equivocations over Trump. The high-level official suggested an opponent run a “Where’s Waldo?”-style campaign: “Where was he on this? Where was he on that? He was nowhere to be found.”
Just because Hogan can be beat doesn’t mean he will be beat. A lot can happen in the next year and a half. But Maryland Democrats have a stronger opportunity than perhaps even they realize to make their blue state blue again. It is not, as Hogan might say, totally out of their hands.