Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s decisive reelection win in Democratic Maryland is fueling speculation about whether he can parlay his popularity into a more prominent role on the nation’s polarized political stage.
While Democrats in Maryland and other blue states across the country stacked up wins Tuesday night, Hogan insulated himself from partisan backlash, defeating challenger Ben Jealous (D) by more than 13 percentage points in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1.
Hogan is already in line to lead the National Governors Association next year, and Republican strategists say his ability not just to survive but to thrive amid a blue wave opens more political opportunities for him — though he would probably be forced to veer right to bolster his national appeal.
“He has moved up in the Republican pecking order, there’s no doubt about it,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran GOP strategist. “He’s a star for the party, and I think he has a bright future.”
But the same political realities that have helped burnish Hogan’s reputation could be an obstacle to him accomplishing his goals at home.
Hogan must rely on Democratic state lawmakers to enact his vision of broad tax cuts, particularly for retirees, more school accountability and a nonpartisan redistricting process.
Those Democrats, who have held a supermajority in the General Assembly for nearly 50 years, picked up a net gain of four seats Tuesday and plan to push for hefty school funding increases, more relief from rising health-care costs — and, possibly, legalizing recreational marijuana or enacting a $15 minimum wage.
“We’re going to have an agenda as well,” said state House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
The former executive director of the Maryland Republican Party was one of six GOP incumbents ousted from the General Assembly in Maryland’s version of the blue wave. He laughed at the idea that Hogan could deliver big tax breaks in a second term.
“Good luck with that,” said Del. Joe Cluster (Baltimore County). “I don’t think he’s going to be able to do anything he wants to do.”
Hogan also will have to grapple with the state’s powerful unions, which have been waging a public and combative battle over contracts for government employees.
Michael Steele, a former chair of the Republican National Committee who has been friends with Hogan for three decades, said the governor’s resounding victory opens a place on the national stage “anywhere he wants to be.”
“The space is his to occupy,” Steele said. “I’m sure those opportunities will present themselves to him, if he wants them.”
Hogan, the son of a former congressman, said before the election that he doubts he would enjoy being a U.S. lawmaker. “I like managing and running” things, the governor said. “Being one of a bunch of legislators that just argue all day and make speeches, that doesn’t thrill me at all.”
He insists he does not harbor presidential ambitions, but in the face of public urging from some of his supporters has declined to rule out a potential run after his second term.
“When he got up to make his speech last night, people were shouting ‘Hogan for President,’ ” Kristen Burke, a stay-at-home mom from St. Mary’s County said Wednesday morning. “I’d like to see that.”
At a Hogan rally Saturday, when a man shouted “run for president,” the governor ignored the subsequent cheers except to shoot a disapproving look into the crowd.
To succeed on a national level, Hogan would have to find a way to appeal to more conservative-leaning voters, analysts said, and would probably need to follow the trajectory of other pragmatic Republican governors, such as Jeb Bush in Florida and Chris Christie in New Jersey, who moved right later in their tenure.
“He would be in a more conservative arena,” Murphy said. “And I don’t know if he has those ambitions, but he impresses a lot of people with his personal and political story.”
Pat Lippold, political director for the SEIU 1199, said concerns about Hogan’s future direction was a key reason the labor group backed Jealous in the election.
“A lot of people think that, it’s not just me,” she said. “I would venture to guess that, much like Chris Christie in his second term, he will be tacking to the right.”
Christie, a Hogan friend and mentor, drew national attention as a popular moderate during his first term, but he then began promoting conservative policies — including overhauling Social Security and increased defense spending — as he was running for president.
Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Council 3 union, said shifting right would be the only way Hogan could appeal to the country’s Republican base. “That means trying to stifle public services,” Moran said.
Hogan has remained popular in Maryland in large part because of pragmatism — his willingness to walk away from political fights he can’t win and embrace Democratic ideas. He has repeatedly distanced himself from President Trump, whom he blamed Wednesday for downballot GOP losses in Maryland.
Hogan said he was able to withstand the Democratic backlash because he “didn’t govern as a Republican. . . . I was a governor for all the people.”
He has roundly dismissed the notion he plans to govern any differently, citing his high job approval ratings and polls that show most residents think the state is headed in the right direction.
“There is going to be no change of direction,” he said Wednesday. “People seem to be happy with what we’ve been doing, so I can’t imagine why we would want to change.”
Hogan said governors from both sides of the aisle should step into the vacuum created by partisan gridlock in Washington. He said his victory could be a model for how Republicans can govern in the age of Trump.
“There’s no question the Republican Party has to take a close look at itself,” Hogan said. “I think I’ll be a part of that discussion about how we can move forward.”
While Hogan’s political ascent in Maryland “is one impressive feat,” it may not provide a helpful road map elsewhere, said Kyle Kondik, who analyzes races for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Like the two other popular Republican governors in Democratic states — Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Phil Scott in Vermont — Hogan is not a “culture warrior,” he said.
“It almost feels like they’re part of a different party than Trump and the rest of the Republicans,” Kondik said. “That’s not necessarily an avenue to becoming a presidential candidate, because you sort of need to be a cultural warrior” right now.
At his January swearing-in, Hogan will be greeted by a markedly more liberal legislature, increasing the pressure on him to govern from the middle.
“Certainly the House and I think maybe the Senate has moved more to the left,” said House Appropriations Chair Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City). “And the governor who tries to call himself a centrist is going to have to work with it.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) said he hopes the governor’s lame-duck status reduces partisan drama.
“We just expect him to live up to his campaign promise that he’s going to work across the aisle and govern from the middle,” Miller said. “He reads tea leaves. He does polling. He knows that people want their government to work.”
Steele, who served one term as Maryland’s lieutenant governor before leading the RNC, said Hogan has plenty of time to decide his plans. He said it’s Hogan’s approach — not necessarily his policy positions — that make him appealing.
“Fundamentally, he didn’t come in there with a philosophical agenda. It doesn’t mean that he didn’t have a philosophy, just that he was willing to listen to people and meet them where they were,” Steele said. “When you lead with your own drum, making your own noise, it means you’re not hearing what the people are saying. They’re more often than not getting it right.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Del. Joe Cluster of Baltimore County as his father, former delegate John W.E. Cluster Jr.
Robert Costa contributed to this report.