MANCHESTER, N.H. — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday he is seriously considering a primary challenge to President Trump, saying the president made “an attempt to obstruct justice” in the Russia investigation but was saved because aides refused to do his bidding.
“There’s no profiles in courage here,” Hogan said. “They’re afraid of being primaried. They’re afraid of being tweeted about. Very few of us are willing to say what we really think.”
Hogan said he has been approached “by a lot of people and a growing number of people” about getting into the race. He plans to visit 16 states in the next few months — including an event in Utah in June at the invitation of former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
“I’m not just wandering around the states hitchhiking,” said Hogan, who is being encouraged to run by GOP critics of the president. “I’m just going to continue to listen to people and just feel it out.”
Hogan previously had said “it makes no sense” to challenge Trump unless he is considerably weakened. But on Tuesday he said he is willing to do so if he believes a contested primary would benefit the Republican Party, even if he does not see a way to win.
He added, though, he was not “going to launch a suicide mission” and saw no urgency in getting into the race before the fall.
Former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld entered the race this month, but polls show the vast majority of Republican voters — and party leaders — remain united behind Trump.
Hogan — only the second Republican ever reelected as governor in deep-blue Maryland — said he believed he could do well in states where independents may also vote in primaries and that a late entry could buoy a cash-strapped operation.
“A shorter field will be better for someone who doesn’t have a lot of money,” he said, noting he had relatively little funding for his underdog victory in 2014. “I’m pretty good at retail politics.”
Hogan went on to say a Democratic-led effort to launch impeachment proceedings against the president based on the Mueller report would be unproductive.
The 448-page Mueller report identified 10 instances of potential obstruction of justice by Trump and described the president’s willingness to benefit from Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller’s team did not conclude Trump or his campaign conspired with the Russian government.
Asked by a reporter how about enduring “Trump’s wrath,” Hogan responded: “It’s probably not the most pleasant thing to go through, I’m sure. But, you know, I battled cancer for 18 months and can probably take it.” The governor was treated for lymphoma during his first term in office.
Democratic activists in Maryland have criticized Hogan for throwing sharp elbows, including incidents in which he called the teachers union “thugs” and accused Democrats of being “pro-criminal.” In his speech Tuesday before business and political leaders, Hogan used soaring rhetoric to tout working across the aisle.
“My experiences over the past four years have blessed me with optimism, not burdened me with dread,” he said. “And I know from personal experience that hope, not fear, is the most powerful emotion and the author of humanity’s greatest achievement.”
He called for the Republican Party to appeal to a broader base, operate with civility and govern by consensus. The audience included some activists who are thirsting for an intraparty fight.
“There’s a market for an alternative to Trump. How big that market is, that’s an open question,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire state GOP chair who said he drove an hour to listen to Hogan speak.
“When somebody like Governor Hogan steps forward to criticize the president, when so many other elected officials do not, that person deserves gratitude, encouragement and maybe a little support,” Cullen said.
More than three-fourths of likely GOP voters said they would back Trump in a contested primary, according to the Granite State Poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire and released Monday. Hogan attracted 1 percent of likely primary voters’ support. Weld captured 5 percent. Ten percent backed former Ohio governor John Kasich, who ran in 2016 but has not announced a 2020 bid.
Hogan downplayed the poll, saying he has only been to New Hampshire twice and that no one knows him yet.
Conservative commentator Bill Kristol, one of Hogan’s most prominent cheerleaders, said he hopes the redacted version of Mueller’s report will shake loose donors who have been reluctant to support someone other than the president.
“I think now some of them say, ‘I’m open to helping,’ ” Kristol said.
Hogan has not hired staff or formed an exploratory committee. He recently visited Iowa, home to the first presidential caucus, in his leadership role with the National Governors Association.
Andrew Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire, said Hogan was likely to benefit from his visit to the state, even though Trump will almost certainly be the choice of state Republicans next year.
“Larry Hogan is a smart politician,” Smith said. “He’s probably positioning himself as someone who can unite the party in a post-Trump world.”
Thomas D. Rath, a fixture in Republican politics here, said the political and business class take very seriously the state’s role in selecting presidential candidates and that Hogan presented himself as a credible alternative.
“By and large, people would like to have a chance to vote on something,” Rath said. “I think there’s an opportunity for someone if they could catch that lightning in a bottle.”