2022 midterms

Larry Hogan and the Fantasy World of Moderate Republicanism

Larry Hogan will never be a Republican presidential nominee. But a senator? It’s a bit more plausible. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Despite, or perhaps because of, Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party and the steady rightward drift the GOP was undertaking even before the mogul arrived on the scene, there is a persistent fantasy in some circles that the very opposite trend is, in fact, the future of that party. In such fantasies, three northeastern governors — Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Phil Scott of Vermont, and Larry Hogan of Maryland — frequently play starring roles. Hogan in particular has been discussed by serious people in serious places as a potential challenger to Trump in 2024, a proposition I find hilarious since he (along with Baker and Scott) is out of sync with his national party on a number of litmus-test issues: not only the identity of the 2020 presidential winner but more fundamental matters like abortion policy. As I explained back in 2020, the “moderates” are an aberration:

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.

But while Hogan is about as likely as Hillary Clinton to become the 2024 Republican presidential nominee, he and Baker and Scott are viable at the state level precisely because the GOP is so very weak in their states. The national party is only tolerating what it sees as their godless liberal heresy because it’s a reasonable price to pay for the rare chance of victory. In addition, gubernatorial campaigns can be framed around state-level issues (and can take advantage of divisions in the majority party) that are remote from the culture-war issues and enforced ideological alliances of national politics.

Unlike his New England counterparts, though, Hogan is subject to term limits and cannot run for a third term in 2022. Inevitably, he has become the subject of considerable interest in the calculations of the wily Mitch McConnell, who would undoubtedly support anyone you can imagine for a Senate race if it increased his chances of winning a majority. The AP’s Steve Peoples says Team Mitch is locked in on recruiting Hogan:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans are stepping up a personal campaign to persuade Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to run for the Senate and help the party’s chances of regaining control of the chamber.

The recruitment effort has included McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, who held Cabinet positions in the Trump and George W. Bush administrations. Moderate Senate Republicans, including Susan Collins of Maine, have also been in direct contact with Hogan to note that his centrist brand of politics would be welcome in a chamber riven with partisanship. Several other Washington officials have made financial pledges or shared internal polling to try to convince Hogan that he has a path to victory.

It makes some sense: Recruiting a demonstrably electable Republican to run in what is likely to be a pro-Republican year in a state in which conservatives are too weak to freak out over it could work. The analogy you will hear, I suspect, is Scott Brown’s stunning 2010 special-election victory in Massachusetts for the Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy — a development that instantly vaporized a Democratic supermajority in the upper chamber and nearly derailed the enactment of Obamacare. This is a special, precious memory for Republicans.

The big question is whether a Senate race is as detachable from polarized national politics as a gubernatorial race. If not, then whatever his popularity, Hogan is not going to overcome his state’s emphatic pro-Democratic character. Maryland was Joe Biden’s third-best state in 2020 (behind, as it happens, Vermont and Massachusetts). It hasn’t elected a Republican senator since Mac Mathias (an actual liberal Republican back in the days when such people walked the earth in significant numbers) since 1980. And lest the Brown analogy tempt Republicans to think Hogan can replicate the 2010 shocker, it should be recalled that Brown won a very low-turnout special election, in which he faced the epically inept Democratic campaign of Martha Coakley. Hogan would have to topple Democratic incumbent Chris Van Hollen in a regular midterm election. Van Hollen (who was first elected in 2016 with over 60 percent of the vote) has been undefeated in Maryland political campaigns dating back to 1990. And as a matter of fact, his first job was with Mathias, so he knows the “moderate Republican” shtick.

Might Hogan give it a try anyway for lack of any other political options? It’s possible. He’s 65 years old and a fairly recent cancer survivor. But without question, he’d be the strongest Republican you could imagine in a Senate race in Maryland. One particular condition precedent would be for conservatives in Washington to convince their neighbors and comrades in Maryland to give Hogan a free ride without serious primary opposition, and that’s not a given, particularly after the governor refused to support or even vote for Trump in 2020 (on his presidential ballot, he wrote in the name of that highly viable alternative candidate Ronald Reagan).

All in all, though, you’d have to guess that northeastern moderate Republicanism just isn’t transmittable to national politics, including U.S. Senate races. The Senate Republican conference really has just one member who doesn’t self-identify relentlessly as a conservative, and that’s Susan Collins, who has been in her current position since 1997 and represents a state that has been trending steadily to the right. Her friend and colleague Lisa Murkowski isn’t quite so ideologically heterodox but is pro-choice and has defied Trump and right now isn’t the betting favorite to survive a Trump-fed purge attempt in 2022. Hogan would be pretty lonely if he did beat the odds and win his own Senate seat. More likely, he will go into retirement as a vestige of a lost tradition.

Larry Hogan and the Fantasy World of Moderate Republicanism