Correction: Earlier versions of this article gave an incorrect first name for Gary Collins. The article has been corrected.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) won office in heavily Democratic Maryland three years ago by avoiding social issues and campaigning on a platform of cutting taxes and regulations and increasing jobs.
So when he waded into the nation’s culture wars this month, the blowback was fierce.
Members of his conservative base immediately lashed out at him, denouncing his decision to support the removal of the statue of former Supreme Court chief justice Roger B. Taney from the State House grounds in Annapolis.
More than two out of three of the nearly 700 phone calls and emails the governor’s office has received about the issue were from people opposed to moving the memorial to Taney, who defended slavery and was the author of the Dred Scott decision.
Hundreds more angry comments were posted to the governor’s Facebook page.
Some people called him names. Many vowed to never vote for him again. And others, like Susan Walker Burnett DeHetre, 69, a retiree who lives in Charles County, did both.
“Sorry Mr. Gov. I really don’t care anymore about what you like or don’t like,” DeHetre wrote in response to Hogan’s Facebook post about watching Tuesday’s solar eclipse. “As far as I’m concerned you are like the cowardly lion. What is wrong with you? I supported you all the way. After the middle of the night removal of history, I’m done with you.”
Analysts said the onslaught — which included vitriol from supporters of President Trump who also are upset that Hogan did not support efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act or make attempts to loosen gun-control laws — will have little impact on Hogan’s bid to become the first two-term Republican governor in nearly 60 years.
That’s because Hogan, whose approval ratings are among the highest of any governor in the nation, also draws considerable support from independents and registered Democrats, who outnumber registered Republicans in the state 2 to 1.
“These are folks who are angry and who are venting now,” said Todd Eberly, a political-science professor at St. Mary’s College. “But people vote their pocketbooks, they vote the economy. They don’t vote statues.”
As a moderate Republican who is focused on jobs and the economy, Hogan is the GOP’s best chance to keep power in Maryland, Eberly said.
Paul Ellington, a former executive director of the state Republican Party who now works as a GOP consultant, said he also thinks that voters will judge Hogan on his overall performance in 2018, when a crowded field of Democrats will be competing to run against him. Ellington described the outrage aimed at Hogan as “a blip” coming from a vocal minority of his Republican base.
“This is kind of an interfamily squabble,” Ellington said. “And much like families, once you hit the door, you’re in unity.”
Last week, the governor weighed in on what Red Maryland, a conservative blog, called an effort by the “left” to change the state flag, which represents both the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War.
In a Facebook post, Hogan said “rest assured that it will never be changed as long as I’m governor.”
Top Democrats said there is no plan to change the flag.
Meanwhile, Gary Collins, who served as a Trump delegate in 2016, said he and many others are hoping that Hogan is challenged in the primary by a Republican who supports repealing the Affordable Care Act and keeping statues like Taney’s in place.
The governor “has absolutely turned his back on his base,” he said. “He needs to come back to the center and stop playing in the left sandbox.”
For years, Hogan, like many Maryland elected officials from both parties, supported keeping the Taney statue on the capitol grounds, citing the former justice’s outsize role in and contributions to many aspects of state and federal government.
But the governor said he changed his mind after watching neo-Nazis and white nationalists rally in support of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville. One counterprotester was killed when a vehicle allegedly driven by a rallygoer slammed into her, and dozens of others were injured.
Hogan said he became concerned that the Taney statue, like statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson, could become a “focal point for racism and violence.”
Not all the reaction about the removal of the statue has been negative. Between Aug. 16 and Aug. 24, 196 people contacted the governor’s office to say they agreed that the statue should come down.
Will Zerhouni, an attorney and Baltimore entrepreneur, thanked Hogan on his Facebook page.
“As Lincoln said, ‘Let us have faith that right makes might and, in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it,’ ” wrote the libertarian-leaning Hogan supporter and Howard County resident. “Your political courage and leadership honor that principle of decency articulated by President Lincoln . . . Keep up the great work!”
And while many GOP politicians in the state have stayed silent about Hogan’s decision, at least one influential Republican has praised it.
House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County), who drafted legislation to remove the Taney statue two years ago at the request of a constituent, said she was proud of Hogan.
Szeliga, who ran for the U.S. Senate last year and lost to Democrat Chris Van Hollen, posted her approval on her own Facebook page shortly after Hogan announced his decision.
“I think all citizens across our state need to do is read the Dred Scott decision for themselves,” Szeliga wrote, explaining that she had done exactly that after hearing from her constituent. “[Taney] said that black people were merchandise and property and should be trafficked like merchandise and property. . . . That decision precluded him from being on our State House grounds.”