Data analyst and political columnist

Larry Hogan, the popular Republican governor of highly Democratic Maryland, is considering a challenge to President Trump in the 2020 Republican primary. He is still in the early phases of deliberation, as he told CNN, “I would say I’m listening. I’m not sure how much thinking we’re doing, but I haven’t closed the door.” Hogan said he isn’t interested in a “suicide mission,” and that he would only run if he thought he could win. And some on the center-right seem excited about his potential candidacy.

Hogan and his boosters aren’t crazy for testing the waters, but he’s probably not the right answer for the Trump-skeptical right. The governor is not a great ideological fit with the modern Republican Party, and many of his potential competitors have the same problems. The buzz around his possible candidacy is a reminder of just how much work the party will have to do to forge a coherent post-Trump identity, and just how hard that work will be.

Before we get into the specifics on Hogan, it’s worth noting that Trump isn’t invincible. His overall approval rating is low, and other presidents who posted similar numbers drew primary challengers (e.g., Edward Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford in 1976). Trump’s approval ratings within the GOP are very high (85 percent of Republicans approve of him according to a recent YouGov poll), but they have some softness to them. Polls from The Post/ABC, the Economist/YouGov, Quinnipiac and Fox News found real chunks of the Republican Party only “somewhat” approve of Trump (9 percent, 27 percent, 16 percent and 26 percent respectively). Those “somewhat” approvers could be dislodged by a recession, some final news from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, or yet another crisis in the White House. Moreover, the Monmouth University poll recently found that 43 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners want Trump to face a primary challenger (49 percent do not).

Those aren’t perfect (or even good) numbers for Trump-skeptical Republicans. Sitting presidents almost always win renomination, and it would be extremely difficult for any Republican to unseat him. But the presidential nomination is a big prize — the nominee is the de facto ideological leader of the party, and a Trump loss (or even a difficult primary fight) could alter the trajectory of the party. More important, the Republican nominee, whether it’s Trump or someone else, could win in 2020 — meaning that the potential rewards might justify trying to shoot the moon in the primary.

But Hogan seems like an imperfect challenger for Trump. As the governor of Maryland, he hasn’t had to take a position on many national issues. But he is out of step with the party on a number of key subjects. Hogan says he’s personally pro-life but has basically left the abortion issue alone as governor. The National Rifle Association gave him a “C” before the last election and refused to endorse him. He’s evolved on LGBTQ issues (he now supports marriage equality), and he didn’t take a position on Trump’s nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Hogan does hold some more traditionally Republican positions. He likes tax cuts. He cooperated with the Obama Administration on deporting illegal immigrants, and has opposed Syrian refugee resettlement in Maryland — though he’s clashed with Trump on immigration in the past.

In other words, Hogan can be reasonably described as a moderate — a capable politician who leans right on some issues, leans left on others and primarily seems to value getting things done. Trump might be vulnerable to a Democrat who runs on competence in the general election, but it’s not clear a similar strategy would work in the Republican primary.

There are only so many moderates in the Republican Party. In “The Four Faces of the Republican Party,” Henry Olsen and Dante Scala divide the Republican primary electorate into four slices — the liberal/moderate wing, the somewhat conservatives, the very conservative evangelicals and conservative secular voters. The moderate and liberal primary voters make up 25 to 30 percent of the voters, according to the authors’ calculations. That’s a solid chunk of the party — Ohio Gov. John Kasich got 14 percent of the overall primary vote by running in the moderate lane in 2016. But 14 to 30 percent isn’t enough to successfully challenge a sitting president.

And Trump is arguably to Hogan’s right on a number of key issues. Since taking office, the president has generally moved to the right on policy. He put Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, he passed a traditionally Republican Tax Reform Law, and he (unsuccessfully) tried to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act — despite advocating for more liberal laws at various points during the 2016 campaign. And it’s probably not going to be easy for anyone to get to Trump’s right on immigration.

According to Gallup, 57 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents want the party to become more conservative, and only 37 percent want it to become more moderate. Moreover, many Republican primary voters are generally socially conservative — and Trump has, despite his decidedly un-religious personal life, delivered for social conservatives on policy. Different people have different definitions of conservative, but it’s not difficult to imagine primary voters looking at Trump and Hogan and deciding that Trump (who seems to have the support of the GOP party apparatus this time around) is the better fit.

(David Byler/The Washington Post)

(David Byler/The Washington Post)

Hogan is a genuinely effective politician. The people he serves generally like him and think he’s doing a good job. But the buzz around Hogan illustrates a real problem for the non-Trump GOP: that it’s not clear what, apart from opposition to Trump, holds it together.

In 2016, Trump won the Republican primary with about 45 percent of the overall Republican primary vote. His three closest competitors — Sen. Ted Cruz, Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio — together won about 50 percent. In other words, more Republicans voted for someone else, but they couldn’t agree on who.

There was a non-Trump majority, but no non-Trump consensus. These different factions had different democratic characteristics: Rubio was more upscale conservative; Kasich more upscale moderate; and Cruz more Christian conservative. And, as Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson has pointed out, those factions were animated by different theories about what the Republican Party should do and be. If Trump had never entered the GOP primary, we probably would have seen a huge fight over whether the GOP needs to become more ideologically conservative, more appealing to young and nonwhite voters or more generally moderate. But when Trump won the Republican nomination, that debate ended without reaching a resolution.

And that’s one of the most underrated obstacles in a primary challenge against Trump. It’s easy to imagine someone breaking off one piece of the GOP, but it’s more difficult to imagine someone putting together enough pieces to actually win. Hogan might start out with Kasich’s piece of the GOP electorate, but it’s not clear to me that he could unify the other constituencies. Cruz’s voters, for example, might prefer Trump, who ran on a ticket with Mike Pence and nominated Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. If Hogan passed on a run and a very religious or ideological conservative ran instead, that candidate might not be able to expand on Cruz’s 2016 showing. In fact, Monmouth polled a 2020 Trump vs. Kasich and Trump vs. Cruz national primary, and Trump beat both by more than 40 points.

That’s not to say that Republicans shouldn’t challenge Trump. Maybe the right way to develop a post-Trump Republican platform is to run someone this time around and see what works. Many political observers weren’t thinking about right-populism until Trump ran, and we might be missing something else now. Maybe the best move for non-Trump Republicans (and for the party as a whole) is to run a mainstream, viable candidate who could challenge Trump just in case a recession, a Mueller bombshell or some other destabilizing event hits during the middle of primary season. Maybe Republicans who don’t like Trump should try to primary him simply because they think it’s the right thing to do.

My point isn’t to discourage a challenge. It’s to note that the problems that kept the non-Trump GOP from unifying in 2016 are arguably still here — and that’s a problem for Hogan, as well as some of the other potential Trump challengers.

It’s not an insurmountable challenge. Maybe Trump will somehow become so damaged that literally anyone could win against him by saying “I’m not Trump.” But we’re not there yet, and I don’t think we’re going to get there. I suspect that Trump will win the 2020 GOP nomination. And after he’s out of office, whether in 2025, 2021 or earlier, the Republicans will have to look at the Trump Era and figure out what elements are worth keeping, what should be chucked and what comes next.

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