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Hogan will not challenge Trump, leaving Trump’s GOP critics with limited options

Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) said both Democrats and Republicans participate in political theater during a political breakfast in New Hampshire on April 23. (Video: C-SPAN)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who was considering an insurgent White House bid that would have championed traditional GOP values, will not challenge President Trump for the Republican Party’s 2020 nomination.

“I’m not going to be a candidate for president in 2020,” Hogan said in an interview.

Hogan’s choice dashes the political hopes of Trump’s leading GOP critics, who have wooed the popular Maryland governor for months and connected him with key players in early voting states. The decision also comes as other top Republicans are shying away from jumping into the presidential fray.

While Hogan acknowledged that Trump’s enduring popularity with most Republicans would have been difficult to overcome, he said his decision was driven by his desire to govern without being pulled into an unpredictable political maelstrom that would keep him away from Annapolis.

“I have a commitment to the 6 million people of Maryland and a lot of work to do, things we haven’t completed,” Hogan said. Another factor he cited was his ongoing role at the National Governors Association, a bipartisan group of the nation’s governors, which he will begin to chair in July.

Despite bowing out of the 2020 discussion, Hogan said he is not retreating from the national political scene and will continue to engage in the debates that are raging in the Republican Party over its future.

“We need to have a bigger tent and find a way to get things done,” Hogan said. “We need some civility and bipartisanship. Our politics are broken. Washington is broken. But we have a story to tell.”

Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) pushed for the end of gerrymandering on the steps of the Supreme Court on March 26. (Video: Reuters)

Next week, Hogan will launch An America United, an advocacy organization that he said would attempt to “transcend partisanship” and rally both parties around such issues as infrastructure. He also will continue to stay close to mainstream GOP leaders and donors, starting with a visit next weekend to the E2 Summit in Utah, which is hosted annually by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

Hogan, 63, made his decision following conversations with his family over the past week in Ocean City, where his wife, Yumi, and their three daughters privately shared their views on a long-shot campaign as they took his grandchildren to get “french fries and ice cream on the boardwalk,” the governor said

We got up every morning, walked on the beach and saw the sunrise, watched some sunsets. We were really just thinking. I would say there were mixed reviews” about the possibility, Hogan said. “The kids were pretty excited about it. My wife thinks it was the right decision not to.”

Hogan added, “Her big push was, ‘You just got reelected to a second term as governor. You made a commitment to the people of Maryland and that’s where your focus should be.’ She said there is plenty of time to think about the future but right now my attention should be on my day job. ”

Hogan also thought of his father, the late Maryland congressman Lawrence J. Hogan Sr., as he moved closer to a final decision in recent weeks. The older Hogan famously was the first GOP member of the House Judiciary Committee to call for President Richard M. Nixon’s impeachment in 1974 — and Hogan weighed whether his father would have encouraged him to take on Trump.

“I think my dad would be very proud of me, in terms of what we have been able to accomplish as governor of Maryland. But I think he probably would be, if he were here, on the side of lobbying me to run,” Hogan said. “He wasn’t here to work me over, but I was thinking about him.”

Hogan dismissed the suggestion that his new advocacy group, with its national agenda and emphasis on bipartisanship, could be a precursor to an independent presidential campaign against Trump.

“No, no, no — it’s not,” Hogan said. “It’s not about a third-party run or anything like that. I’m not hedging my bets.”

Hogan is the latest disappointment for the “Never Trump” wing of the Republican Party, which has labored for months to recruit Hogan and other prominent GOP figures, such as former Ohio governor John R. Kasich, to challenge Trump. That bloc, which includes traditional conservatives appalled by Trump’s nationalism and moderate Republicans who are uneasy with the president’s conduct, has been informally led by veteran commentators such as William Kristol.

“I come from the Ronald Reagan school of politics,” Hogan said in March in an interview at the state Capitol, shaking his head in disapproval when asked whether he shares Trump’s nationalism. He also said groups such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a frequent target of Trump’s ire, are “critically important” and expressed alarm about the way the president is “not standing by or standing up for some of our allies.”

Hogan’s appeal to conservatives would certainly have been tested if he joined the race. As a Roman Catholic, he said he is “personally opposed to abortion.” But as governor, he has not tried to restrict access to the procedure, and he said he has “never taken any actions that would take away somebody else’s ability to make that decision for themselves.”

Trump’s signature issue of immigration would have been another battleground. Although Hogan asked the federal government in 2015 to stop sending Syrian refugees to Maryland unless they were more thoroughly vetted, he pressed the Trump administration this year to grant more work visas to immigrant laborers and has protested family separations by recalling a small Maryland National Guard contingent from the southern border.

Kristol attended a Baltimore Orioles baseball game in April where he huddled with Hogan and Hogan’s confidant and political strategist, Russ Schriefer, to talk about the 2020 presidential race. Kristol told Hogan that his ability to win twice in deep-blue Maryland could resonate with Republican voters, particularly after the party’s losses in the 2018 midterm elections.

Hogan and Kasich have listened to those kinds of pitches but remained reluctant to launch campaigns that would force them to fend off Trump, who is known for savaging his opponents at every turn, and rally support in a party that remains firmly in Trump’s grip even amid controversy.

“There is no path right now for me,” Kasich said Friday on CNN. “I don’t see a way to get there.” He said the reality is that “90 percent of the Republican Party supports” Trump.

Hogan said, “I never liked the terminology, ‘Never Trumper,’ ” and he said that while he respects the people who lead that movement, he has never considered that movement to be his political base.

On Capitol Hill, the lone Republican to call for Trump’s impeachment in the wake of the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice has been Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), underscoring the uphill battle facing Trump’s critics.

Hogan said he admired Amash for speaking out but said: “I’m not sure I’d go as far as he’s willing to go. I don’t think we should have impeachment proceedings at this point. We’ve been through two years of this pretty in-depth investigation.” He said the 2020 election, rather than a “partisan” impeachment process, is the best way of holding Trump accountable.

There is one notable Republican who is challenging Trump: former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, who announced his campaign in April. But Weld last won an election in 1994 and has drifted politically, serving as the vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party in 2016.

Still, with few major names stepping forward, Kristol and others eager to see Trump challenged have warmed to Weld, and Kristol is co-hosting a meet-and-greet with Weld on June 18 in Washington.

Hogan said he would “take a look” at supporting Weld, but he has not made a decision on whether he will endorse him — or anyone else. “Governor Weld did call me before he announced, and we had a nice conversation. I have a lot of respect for him and John Kasich and a lot of these other folks.”

In late April, Hogan traveled to New Hampshire to give his message a test run and said Trump made “an attempt to obstruct justice” in the Russia probe but was saved because aides refused to do his bidding. He called special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report “very disturbing.”

Asked by a reporter about enduring “Trump’s wrath,” Hogan responded: “It’s probably not the most pleasant thing to go through, I’m sure. But, you know, I battled cancer for 18 months and can probably take it.” The governor was treated for lymphoma during his first term in office.

Yet as Hogan — only the second Republican ever reelected as governor in Maryland — mulled a bid in Ocean City in late May, he said he could not convince himself that there was a growing demand in his party for what he would be selling, at least at this moment in the frenzy of the Trump era.

“There was less of a demand out there in a Republican primary for the kind of thing we’re talking about right now,” he said in the interview. “The president has a pretty solid lock on Republican primary voters.”

Maryland Trump supporters have openly tried to discourage Hogan from challenging the president, lining up GOP endorsements for Trump’s reelection campaign. A poll last month showed that Republican voters in his home state would back the president by a more than 2-to-1 margin, should Hogan run.

When asked how close he came to hiring new political staffers and taking steps to run, Hogan declined to “get into the inside baseball,” but he did say that he retained his “entire team” from his 2018 campaign and they were “meeting on a regular basis, doing some planning, looking at it very, very carefully.”

But, Hogan said, “we never took it to the next level where we were hiring additional campaign staff to actually go set up offices anywhere else. We had a pretty sizable operation, one of the smartest teams, already assembled and ready.”

That said, Hogan isn’t ruling out a bid for the White House in 2024, making him one of several Republicans who are eyeing that contest. That list includes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, according to GOP donors familiar with their thinking.

“I believe there’s going to be a future in the Republican Party beyond President Trump,” Hogan said. “It’s either going to be next year or four years later. But at some point we’re going to be looking for what the future is going to be like.”

Erin Cox contributed to this report.