SALISBURY, Md. — Waiting in a large crowd at an outdoor arena for Gov. Larry Hogan to open a folk music festival, Christopher Welch listed his reasons for supporting the Republican chief executive.
“Hogan is opening the state back up for business. He’s been very good to state employees, which I am now. And he’s taking care of places outside the [Baltimore-Washington] metro corridor,” said Welch, a state trooper and candidate for clerk of the court here in rural Wicomico County.
Welch, a Republican who also supports President Trump, said Hogan’s repeated refusal to embrace the man in the White House “doesn’t bother me one bit.”
“Hogan is trying to make Maryland No. 1, and Trump is trying to make America No. 1,” Welch said. “They may have different views, but they’re both going in the same direction.”
On the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland — red parts of a deep-blue state — Hogan has retained the enthusiastic support of the GOP base. That loyalty has freed the governor to champion centrist proposals and positions, including free community college, paid family leave for state employees, building the light-rail Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and banning fracking across the state.
Hogan’s repeated attempts to distance himself from Trump, meanwhile, appear to have inoculated him from Democratic attempts to link him to the president, with 60 percent of Maryland voters in a recent Goucher Poll saying their opinions of Trump will have little to no effect on their gubernatorial vote.
The same poll found 91 percent of likely Republican voters supporting Hogan’s reelection, compared with 48 percent of likely Democratic voters who plan to vote for Democratic challenger Ben Jealous. Overall, Hogan is leading Jealous by double digits.
Some hardcore conservatives grumble about Hogan’s frequent criticisms of Trump — at a televised debate Monday, he said, “There’s not a lot I have in common with the president” — and his centrist positions on issues such as gun control.
But they’re ready to vote for him anyway, thrilled at the prospect of Maryland’s first two-term GOP governor since the 1950s.
“It would be nice to have someone more conservative,” retiree Johanne Watson said after seeing Hogan recently at the Great Frederick Fair. But she added: “This works. It’s like making a little concession. . . . You have to concede a little bit to work with everybody.”
In a state where Democrats have a more than 2-to-1 edge in party registration, “Hogan is being smart by staying down the middle,” GOP voter Beth Dunn, 61, said in Salisbury. “Trump has too much ill will against him.”
Republicans “understand that he has to govern from the center,” state Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) said of Hogan. “Many of them thought they’d never have a Republican governor in our lifetime.”
Hogan’s strategy mirrors that pursued by Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, another blue-state Republican leader who has been listed, along with Hogan, as the nation’s two most popular governors. Both have frequently broken with the president, most recently by calling for a delay in the Supreme Court nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh so allegations of sexual misconduct can be fully investigated.
It’s not an approach that works in red states, where Republicans are loath to break with Trump because of the base’s strong support for the president.
But in Maryland, GOP leaders say Hogan’s popularity is a plus in their “Drive for Five,” a quest to gain at least five seats in the state Senate this November, which would eliminate the Democrats’ vetoproof majority and give the GOP leverage over judicial appointments and redistricting following the 2020 Census. Hogan has been the featured guest at campaign events and fundraisers for many Republican Senate candidates.
“He’s been raising a lot of money,” said Patrick O’Keefe, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. “He’s been saying recently that he’s looking at [gaining] seven, eight or nine [seats].”
Mark Odachowski, who owns an electrical contracting company in Ocean City, has been making and handing out hundreds of Trump flags. When photos of them flying at a local marina circulated on social media, the president sent out an approving tweet.
Odachowski has praise for the governor, too. He credits both Trump and Hogan for an improved economy, which he said has allowed him to increase hiring from a low of nine employees at the bottom of the recession to 100 today.
“He’s definitely helped small business,” he said of Hogan. “You can see the economy is doing well, and he’s part of it.”
At the opening of the National Folk Festival in Salisbury this month, and later at the Frederick fair, Hogan was greeted enthusiastically. Supporters credited him for opposing tax increases, lowering tolls and reducing regulations — and for championing the interests of rural Maryland, which chafes at what it sees as second-class status compared with the more populous, Democratic-dominated areas around Baltimore and Washington.
“He’s just a great administrator, and he’s fair and he’s considerate,” said attorney Melvin Caldwell Jr., who praised Hogan for restraining state spending.
Others welcomed the rebuilding of 11 bridges on U.S. Route 50, and $1.5 million of state funding for modernizing Main Street and building an amphitheater in time for the festival’s opening.
“It’s been a reality for us on the Eastern Shore that we’ve been left behind,” said Del. Carl L. Anderton (R-Wicomico). “Now we feel like we’re on an equal footing, and we’d kind of like to stay there for a little while.”
At the Frederick fair, Hogan toured exhibits of baked goods and cranked a machine that stripped kernels from ears of corn. “For eight years there was what a lot of people refer to as a war on agriculture and a war on rural Maryland,” he said, referring to the tenure of his predecessor, Democrat Martin O’Malley. “And the day I was sworn in, I said, ‘That war is over.’ I promised that the areas of the state that were ignored and neglected and forgotten would no longer be forgotten.”
Hogan has maintained his independence from Trump from the start. He did not attend the 2016 nominating convention and said on Election Day that he cast a write-in ballot for president for his father, former U.S. congressman Lawrence J. Hogan, who died a few months later.
Jealous and other Democrats have accused the governor of failing to stand up to Trump on immigration, the GOP tax law and other issues. But Hogan has publicly faulted Trump on subjects including health care, Chesapeake Bay funding, the separation of immigrant families at the border and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An outspoken critic of Hogan’s moderation is Matt Adams, the Republican Party chairman in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore. He and other conservatives fault Hogan for signing a “red flag” gun-control bill that would allow family members or law enforcement agencies to seek court orders to keep people from owning a gun if they have been deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others.
“Larry has consistently turned his back on his base,” Adams said. “Anyone who is really paying attention as a Republican has a serious concern about the gun bill that Larry has signed, and his lack of support for Trump.”
But Adams said he and like-minded conservatives would vote for Hogan anyway.
“Do we vote for Larry, versus Ben Jealous? Of course. Ben Jealous is a disaster,” Adams said.
Many Maryland Republicans who back both Hogan and Trump draw an important distinction between the two. While they applaud both men’s policies, they say they also find the governor likable but often cringe at the president’s aggressiveness and personal attacks.
“With Trump, the main problem is people don’t like him, but they like what he does,” said Mark McIver, the Republican central committee chairman in Wicomico. “With Larry, they like him, and they also like what he does.”