The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Larry Hogan won over Democrats in Maryland. Could he do it nationwide?

Over eight years, Hogan proved that Democrats will give high marks to a savvy Republican with populist instincts and a willingness to trash his party’s leaders

Larry Hogan unveils his official portrait on Jan. 10 in Annapolis after delivering his farewell address as Maryland's governor. The artist, Cedric Egeli, right, attended the unveiling. (Michael Robinson Chávez/The Washington Post)

Former Maryland governor Larry Hogan flirted with running for president years before his term ended, openly weighing whether 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 whether the skills that catapulted Hogan to unusual popularity as the Republican governor of a Democratic state could be sold to a fractured GOP.

Any presidential bid would be built on his tenure in Maryland, where he forged rapport with the electorate through his handling of 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 Affordable Care Act 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 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 those in Baltimore.

Former 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 the former president’s rhetoric. Hogan’s approach politically benefited him, but 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 — criticizing the removal of Confederate monuments as “political correctness run amok” but later organizing the overnight eradication of the most prominent one on State House grounds. Hogan said he has no regrets about his tenure, including a widely derided decision to cancel the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail — a critical transit project for economically challenged Baltimore that he denigrated as 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 —for instance, 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 — his job approval ratings did not falter much.

“He did a lot of negative things, but they never stuck to him,” said former state senator Paul G. 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 that 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 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 his Facebook page throughout his tenure, maintaining a direct line of communication with hundreds of thousands of residents. At one point, the American Civil Liberties Union sued him — and won a settlement — for blocking hundreds of critics from commenting there. The page also occasionally posted doctored news-article headlines implying that 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 goodwill with how he handled his cancer diagnosis,” Haire said, “and I think he was smart and strategic about channeling that goodwill into his brand and his agenda.”

Hogan made his first big impression in Maryland by calling in the state’s National Guard to quell unrest in Baltimore over Gray, a Black man who was fatally injured 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 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 throughout his 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 that 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 with the terms of 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 the event was canceled during the pandemic.

The pandemic presented an enduring crisis that put Hogan in front of TV 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 he eventually encountered friction 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 the goodwill of conservative Republicans, who were frustrated that he seemed more willing to work with Democrats than his own party. (He faced an unsuccessful impeachment attempt by the 2022 GOP nominee for governor, former delegate 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 he campaigned that way, promising in 2014 that he would 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 offer examples beyond holding the line on tax increases.

“I didn’t say I was coming in to pass a lot of legislation. I said I was going to run the government more efficiently, more cost-effectively, and turn the economy around and make us more productive. And that’s what we did.”

He hewed closely to the pocketbook issues that got him elected, pushing fee reductions, questioning the cost of Democratic priorities and reducing, through attrition, the size of state government by roughly 2,800 jobs. He enacted tax cuts for targeted groups, first responders and eventually most retirees. But he was willing to claim a win even when he didn’t get what he wanted.

After losing a fight to repeal a gasoline tax that funds transportation projects, he plowed the money it generated into road and bridge projects across the state, celebrating the improvements with community ribbon-cuttings. In total, budget documents show, Hogan spent 35 percent more on transportation — $42 billion in total, including ample federal funds — during his two terms than Gov. Martin O’Malley, whom Hogan criticized as a tax-and-spend Democrat.

Throughout his tenure, he extolled the virtues of bipartisanship — a point he reiterated in his farewell speech: “I warned about the wedge politics and petty rhetoric being used to belittle adversaries and to inflame partisan divisions in America. … The politics that have divided our nation need not divide our state.”

Yet Haire, the former GOP chair, noted that Hogan did his fair share of belittling adversaries, such as calling the 2022 Republican gubernatorial nominee not “mentally stable,” among other gibes.

“As Hogan is out there as ‘normal Joe everyman’ who rises above partisan politics, he’s also out there calling our party’s nominee a ‘QAnon whack job,’ ” Haire said.

Hogan said he learned from watching a Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich, to temper his own naturally “pugnacious” personality, because being effective is more important than making a point.

“I’m pretty feisty. And I had to kind of pull back the reins sometimes because I saw Bob Ehrlich fight on every issue and then not get anything accomplished,” Hogan said late last year in an interview with Goucher College.

Many Democrats say Hogan worked with them only when it suited him — for instance, staving off health-insurance cost increases or reducing the prison population. But when it didn’t, he derided them, like when he decided to demonize an effort to revamp education as a “tax hike commission.”

“Bipartisanship was a very one-way street with the governor,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said.

Hogan took center stage at news conferences he called to celebrate initiatives he had approved, while vetoing the more expansive and often popularefforts on climate, education, transportation and criminal justice approved by the Democratic supermajority in the General Assembly.

“He was the master of taking credit for it — which I don’t begrudge him for,” Ferguson said. “That’s what an executive does, highlights what people like. He spun things the right way.”

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) summed up their dynamic this way: “True, he’s not a Trump. That’s probably the best I could say.”

Hogan didn’t limit his spin to the legislature’s actions. In 2015, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Maryland had illegally collected $200 million in state income taxes and had to return it. Hogan called a news conference announcing $200 million in “tax relief.”

Hogan also wielded power through silence. Lawmakers were routinely miffed that the administration refused to testify in person on legislation, leaving them to craft policies without having the opportunity to publicly question the administration on how they would be implemented.

Doug Mayer, a longtime Hogan adviser, said that, too, was strategic: It prevented having confrontational fights air on the evening news. “We certainly said, ‘Yeah, we’re not doing that,’” Mayer said. “We did that because it didn’t allow them to attack us.”

Mayer said Hogan deserves credit not just for strategically playing defense but for the real relationships he built with residents, which is why his approval ratings were among the highest of any governor in the country.

“He will walk down any street in Maryland the rest of his life and someone will ask for his picture,” Mayer said. “No one thought that was possible the day he got elected.”

Can Hogan parlay his popularity?

As he handed over the governor’s mansion to Wes Moore, a rising Democratic star, Hogan was contemplating how to harness the popularity he accrued as governor.

“What works in Maryland doesn’t necessarily fly nationally,” said Paul Ellington, a longtime Maryland Republican strategist. “But that doesn’t mean the man’s not talented and he won’t figure out a path forward.”

Even those who praise him are not ready for him to be a national party leader: While 74 percent of Republican Maryland voters polled this fall approved of his performance as governor, only 35 percent said they would support Hogan in a hypothetical race against Trump in 2024.

Hogan has positioned himself as a pragmatic conservative and throwback to the Ronald Reagan era, arguing that his ability to attract swing voters is what the party needs to grow its appeal.

Republican strategists are not optimistic, seeing a far tougher path through Republican primaries for Hogan than other potential GOP presidential contenders, such as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Hogan, who hasn’t decided on a run but likes to point out he’s used to being an underdog, says that in general, Republicans nationwide should pay attention to any candidate who can attract swing voters and effectively govern. Hogan also has demonstrated a unique appeal to Black residents, who recently gave him higher job approval ratings than White voters did.

“He’s not a fake guy,” said Arthur F. “Squeaky” Kirk III, who befriended Hogan while seeking resources for a community center he runs in West Baltimore. Their relationship spanned seven years and led to Kirk — a lifelong Democrat and son of a prominent Baltimore City lawmaker, to film reelection campaign ads on Hogan’s behalf in 2018, urging fellow Black voters to support Hogan.

“He showed that he was a common-sense guy,” Kirk said. “I don’t think they could ever say that he was like a die-hard, hardcore Republican totally against anything Democrat, African American or low-income. I think he showed that he wanted to make things work.”

Scott Clement, Emily Guskin, Katie Shaver and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.