Nearly five years into Gov. Larry Hogan’s tenure, the Maryland Republican Party is still trying to figure out how to capitalize on his record approval ratings.
In November, Hogan won reelection by a wide margin, becoming the first Republican governor elected to a second term in the state in more than half a century. His popularity has boosted the party’s fundraising to historic levels, and the GOP spent heavily last year in hopes of expanding its footprint in Maryland, where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by a margin of 2 to 1.
But the party ended up losing eight legislative seats and two of the five county executive positions they held, as Democratic voters, energized by opposition to President Trump, turned out in force.
Now, with Hogan barred by law from seeking a third term, his party is starting to turn its attention to 2022 and beyond.
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said Republicans, who endured debt and internal division before Hogan’s surprise win in 2014, face two daunting challenges over the next couple of years: a popular, term-limited governor, and an unpopular president.
“Right now so much of the Republican Party in Maryland is Larry Hogan. And if Hogan isn’t there it creates a huge void, and there is no indication of who will fill that void,” he said. “There is no heir apparent, and that does not bode well for a party that has been stuck in the minority for a long time. . . . It’s just not a pretty picture looking forward, and Donald Trump doesn’t help them.”
Several Republican elected and party officials have been floating two top members of Hogan’s administration as possible lead gubernatorial contenders: Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford and state Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz.
Rutherford, 62, an understated public servant whose profile was lifted after Hogan’s cancer diagnosis in 2015, told The Washington Post last week that he is weighing a gubernatorial bid — although a spokeswoman said he has not commissioned polling or hired potential campaign staff.
“I get that question all the time,” he said when asked about a 2022 run. “I am considering it.”
“I believe I have time to make a determination,” added Rutherford, a lawyer who switched political parties about 30 years ago and met Hogan when both were working for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
“It’s going to be whether it’s something I want to do, and what my wife would want to do.” He paused and then added with a chuckle “or allow to do.”
Hogan, asked in December about the party’s down-ballot losses and how it would affect the search for his successor, said he did not “want to get into picking potential replacements quite yet.” But he noted that there were several good possibilities.
“I have an incredible lieutenant governor who could be the first black governor in the state history,” he said of Rutherford. “We have [Barry Glassman], a terrific county executive in Harford County.”
Hogan — who decided against challenging Trump in 2020 and is often mentioned as a potential challenger to Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) in 2022 — did not mention Schulz, a former delegate who has served in his Cabinet since 2015. But other elected officials said her name is being discussed throughout the party as a qualified candidate, at a time when state Republicans are pushing for more women in office. Maryland has never had a woman governor.
Schulz said last week that she has not given any consideration to a 2022 gubernatorial run.
The 2018 election wiped out much of the existing bench of potential Hogan successors, with Allan H. Kittleman and Steve Schuh, the former county executives in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, losing their reelection bids.
But state GOP chair Dirk Haire said the future of the party will rest in its local leaders and the party’s move to aggressively recruit women to run for office — an effort that has been successful for Democrats in recent years.
“When you look at Larry Hogan, Steve Schuh and Allan Kittleman, they’re great, but they are white guys in their 60s,” Haire said. “We have an emerging crop of 30-something and 40-something men and women that I see as the future of the party.”
Haire announced last month that Corine Frank, 36, the vice chairwoman of the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee, would replace Patrick O’Keefe as the state party’s executive director. O’Keefe left for a position with Anedot, an online fundraising company.
While Hogan has maintained his distance from Trump — at times to the chagrin of party leaders — the state GOP has turned to Trump and his allies, as well as to the governor, to help boost the party and its coffers.
Vice President Pence headlined the state party’s annual fundraising dinner last month. Four years ago, Trump, then a Republican presidential primary candidate, gave the keynote address.
The Republican base in Maryland, as in the rest of the country, strongly supports Trump, according to polls. But Eberly said the invitation to Pence, at a time when Trump has low approval ratings overall among Maryland voters, poses a “danger” for the party, which needs votes from moderate Democrats to be successful in future elections.
“It just further cements the idea that Republicans equal Trump,” Eberly said.
Party leaders said the event with Pence was one of its largest in years, with tickets selling out a month before. More than 500 people attended, and the party raised over $165,000, refilling coffers that were depleted in 2018.
Both Hogan and Rutherford skipped the event to attend a convention for municipal officials in Ocean City.
House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Harford) dismissed concerns about the GOP’s future in Maryland, saying that past Democratic predictions of the party’s demise turned out to be inaccurate.
She said anyone who questions the strength of the party heading into 2022 will be surprised.
“To have [Hogan] win with such a large margin was a huge victory,” she said. “We’re positioned well with Governor Hogan, and other leaders across the state to do well in future years.”