With the president’s reelection prospects looking poor lately, there’s naturally an upsurge in speculation about his party’s future leadership. If he loses non-catastrophically, you might expect a struggle for the soul of the GOP between the conservative wing of the party that was dominant before Trump and various representatives of the authoritarian-populist twist on conservatism Trump represents.
But a lot of the chatter about post-Trump Republicanism dwells on two pols who would not have been considered serious national party leaders before 2016 and who most definitely do not espouse Trumpism without Trump. Those would be northeastern governors Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland. Baker had to publicly rule out a 2020 primary challenge to Trump to kill rumors that it might happen, and Hogan confesses he considered entering the race himself. Both men typically make the lists of 2024 presidential prospects.
What they have in common is a record of winning elections and reelections in heavily Democratic states and an ability to get national attention for distinguishing their views from those of a president who is toxically unpopular in those same states. As McKay Coppins notes in a deeply skeptical column on Hogan’s presidential prospects, that makes these moderate heretics vastly more popular among political writers than among Republican voters:
[H]e’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.)
For the moment, and perhaps for good, pols like Hogan and Baker who have criticized Trump on multiple issues have in effect traded any possibility of national party significance for popularity back home. It works because the GOP in their states is so weak they will themselves trade orthodoxy for the rare opportunity to win statewide races (though it’s worth noting that Baker has lost control of his state party, and some speculate he may choose to run for a third gubernatorial term as an independent). And the self-disqualification for national leadership these moderates have invited isn’t just a matter of criticizing Trump: They are both pro-choice, which is an absolute nonstarter when it comes to being taken seriously as a presidential candidate in today’s GOP. The party remains formally committed to a constitutional amendment banning all abortions forever from the moment of conception.
In essence, northeastern “moderates” like Hogan, Baker, and Vermont governor Phil Scott are triangulating against their national party, much as southern conservative Democrats did for decades. There’s no way the spurned national party is going to embrace them (nor should it, really), other than as regional survival options.
The real leadership options Republicans will face if Trump loses in November will probably come down to the hard-core conservatives (think 2016 candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, plus Nikki Haley), who accommodated themselves to MAGA over the past four years but represent an older conservative movement, or the designated Trump successors (e.g., Mike Pence, Donald Jr., or Tucker Carlson), or perhaps those who may represent a sort of protofascist extension of Trumpism (e.g., Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley). There remains, of course, the possibility that the 45th president himself will hang around in hopes of becoming the 47th. It’s infinitely more probable than the prospect of Hogan or Baker taking over the GOP.