DES MOINES — He cracked jokes about the frigid Iowa weather. He boasted about his state’s agricultural industry. And he decried the caustic atmosphere in Washington.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, one of the highest-profile Republicans open to running against President Trump, sounded notes Monday that candidates-in-waiting have long tried to hit in this first-caucus state.
But he also signaled that he is in no rush to make up his mind about 2020. He said he was here to attend to National Governors Association business, not lay the groundwork for a campaign. “It currently makes no sense, with a president that has the kind of approval rating that he does in his own party,” Hogan said in an interview. “Having said that, I’ve said things can change, and we don’t know what it might look like a few months from now.”
Variables such as the outcome of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe, Democratic talk of impeachment and the president’s fluctuating political standing are all potential factors in his decision, Hogan acknowledged. In the meantime, he’s taking things slowly.
Here in Iowa, the immediate hurdles any Republican looking to challenge Trump would face are daunting. The president’s image has improved, the party establishment is firmly behind him, and many conservative activists adore him.
“I think [Trump’s] numbers are going up,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said in a brief interview. “He’s the president. We’re actually seeing the economy growing, because of taxes being reduced and regulatory reductions.” She said she plans to back Trump in 2020.
Reynolds had just attended a luncheon with Hogan and others at an NGA workshop. The two-day conference on jobs and the economy was the reason for Hogan’s visit — “I’m not here to do any campaigning,” he said, though he is meeting with local business leaders — but the trip still turned some Republican heads.
“If everything stays the way it is today . . . can someone like Hogan primary Trump and be successful? No,” said Craig Robinson, a former state Republican Party official who now runs a conservative Iowa website. “But I think there’s enough variables out there that, you know, it’s a pretty savvy position to take.”
By “it,” Robinson meant Hogan’s posture when it comes to 2020. Fresh off a decisive reelection win in a blue state, Hogan is keeping his options open.
“It’s safe to say there are a lot of people in the party and outside the party who are approaching me,” Hogan said in the interview. “I’ve been listening and I’ve been, you know, interested in what they have to say. But I haven’t, you know, committed to doing anything other than listen.”
On Monday, Hogan, wearing a dark blazer and no tie, could have easily been mistaken for a candidate already running for president. At the luncheon, he started his remarks with a quip about organizing a walking tour and closed by expressing his pleasure that “the temperature doubled from one to two degrees.”
During a panel discussion with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), also a possible presidential candidate, Hogan told the audience they would probably be shocked to know that agriculture is Maryland’s “number one industry” — a line that could come in handy down the road in this farm-friendly state.
Intentionally or not, Hogan also previewed a potential campaign message during the talk. “Like most people in America, I’m really frustrated and disappointed with the dysfunction and divisiveness in Washington and the fact that nothing ever really seems to get done,” he said.
In the interview, Hogan said he was troubled by Trump’s policy decisions on border security and the recent government shutdown. “I’ve also railed against the tone and the divisive rhetoric that I think are not helpful,” he said.
Asked why most other Republican elected leaders have not been willing to speak out against Trump the way he has, Hogan offered two explanations.
“I think there are some Republicans who actually agree with the president, and they’re not concerned as much about the rhetoric,” he said. “I also believe, though, that there are some who perhaps are concerned and do agree with some of the things that I’m saying or some of the concerns that I have, but they don’t want to speak up.”
He added, “There’s not a lot of profiles in courage. . . . They’re afraid of being primaried, they’re afraid of being attacked on Twitter. And I’m really not.”
The risks of straying from the president are evident in Iowa. A Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll last month found 85 percent of Iowa Republicans approved of the way Trump is handling his job. Among Republicans who the survey said were likely to vote in the 2020 general election, 73 percent said they would definitely vote to reelect Trump.
“Iowa is the heart of Trump country, and Republicans in Iowa are proud of what President Trump has accomplished,” said state GOP chair Jeff Kaufmann. “Any challenge would likely prove futile.”
Trump’s approval rating among Iowa adults climbed from 39 percent last September to 46 percent in February, according to the Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll, reaching its highest level in their survey since the president took office.
Hogan said he understands his own political dynamic is different from what many Republicans face in their states and districts.
“I’m in a unique position in that I’m term-limited and I’m in one of the bluest states in the country,” he said. “I have no reason not to say exactly what I think.”
Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.