Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was finishing his “State of the State” speech Wednesday when, in the audience, one grizzled veteran of state politics leaned over to another.
“Close your eyes,” former Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat, told former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a Republican. “It almost sounds like a presidential announcement speech.”
In recent weeks, as Hogan talks — in formal addresses, on informal panels and, increasingly, in national media interviews — more and more people are having the same reaction as Glendening. As the federal government in Washington sinks into ever-deeper dysfunction and the public casts about for alternatives, some so-called “Never Trump” Republicans are urging Hogan to run in a 2020 primary against his own party’s president.
The governor has largely demurred, without closing the door completely to the possibility. But the prospect of his unlikely candidacy has nevertheless prompted intense speculation among Maryland’s political insiders.
Would he actually do it? Could he possibly win? And what would it mean for our state to have our governor challenging President Donald Trump, who’s been known to lash out at people who cross him?
Political analysts and people close to Hogan say they believe there’s little chance the Republican governor — who accomplished the rare feat of being re-elected in heavily Democratic Maryland — would actually challenge Trump, unless the political landscape in the country changes dramatically.
Hogan has said he’s done nothing at all to take steps to run for higher office. He’s formed no exploratory committee. He has no Super Political Action Committee support. He has no national or international policy advisers and no campaign chairs in other states — all steps serious candidates typically take if they are gearing up for a campaign.
Moreover, Hogan has only $376,000 left in his Maryland campaign account — money that can’t be transferred to a federal race. His federal campaign account, last used when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1992, holds just $2,000.
“It’s not something I’ve been focused on at all. … I’m flattered that all these people are talking about that,” Hogan said Monday on WBAL radio after several national media outlets ran pieces speculating about him possibly challenging Trump. “It’s a little bit surprising to me that so many people are making such noise about this. I’m intrigued and listening to it, but it’s not something I’ve been involved in at all.”
But by that evening — in a PBS News panel discussion at Baltimore’s Parkway Theatre with two other governors — Hogan jokingly fueled more speculation.
Hogan noted he was traveling in March to Iowa for a National Governors Association event. That state, with its caucuses, hosts the important kickoff to presidential election season.
And, Hogan pointed out, he was seated on stage with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, whose state hosts the first primary election for presidential candidates.
“I’m the gatekeeper,” Sununu told audience members. “Look, I invite anyone who wants to run for president to come on in and sit in the office.”
Hogan interjected: “I’m going to come see you right after Iowa.”
“Who knows what’s going to happen two years from now?” Hogan said. “You never know.”
In an interview with CNN shown Friday, Hogan said he would need to see a possible path to victory in order to run.
“I wouldn’t be on some fool’s errand just to run some suicide mission,” he said. “I would only run if I thought that I could actually win.”
Hogan has said that during his second term, he planned to get more involved with national politics as vice president of the national governors group. He’s also been granting more interviews with national media outlets, after generally turning down those requests in a first term.
His message — that Washington is dysfunctional and a bipartisan approach to governing is needed — is largely unchanged from his first term, but it’s reaching new ears as partisan division soars during the Trump era.
In December, Hogan spoke at a conference held by the Niskanen Center, a conservative Washington think tank, called “Starting Over: The Center-Right After Trump.”
The center’s founder, Jerry Taylor, has been encouraging Hogan for weeks to explore a primary challenge to Trump.
And Hogan is considering meeting with more “Never Trump” Republicans during his trip to Iowa, according to his spokeswoman Amelia Chasse.
“As you know, the governor is going to Iowa in March to attend a National Governors Association event related to chairman Steve Bullock's jobs initiative,” Chasse said. Bullock is the governor of Montana and chairman of the NGA.
Hogan “has received several requests and suggestions for additional meetings or visits while he is there, and will consider them as his schedule is finalized in the coming month,” Chasse said.
Hogan’s apparent openness to the idea has fueled much support from anti-Trump Republicans and newspaper columnists desperate for a different political direction for the country.
A USA Today columnist this week called Hogan “an increasingly attractive rescue vessel” for the party. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote that Hogan is the “best shot” to challenge Trump. And New York Times columnist David Brooks tweeted: “I’m not sure any of the Dem presidential hopefuls are well positioned to take on the Republican nominee, Larry Hogan.”
But the electoral landscape looks difficult for any Republican to challenge the president in 2020. No elected president has ever lost a primary election challenge in modern American history — though it happened over a century ago, in 1856, when President Franklin Pierce wasn’t nominated by the Democratic Party for a second term.
Today, a large majority of Republicans still support the president. Nearly 70 percent of Republicans said in a recent NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll that they definitely will vote for Trump.
“As of right now, I don’t think it’s very realistic to think Larry Hogan is going to run for president,” said Melissa Deckman, a professor of political science at Washington College. “The vast majority of rank-and-file [Republican primary] voters still strongly support Donald Trump.”
And Hogan could be risking a lot if he challenged Trump, who has insulted fellow Republicans with demeaning nicknames, such as “Little Marco” Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz. Trump has never attacked Hogan on Twitter, but Maryland’s governor has rarely criticized Trump by name.
Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic strategist in Maryland, says the state would risk more than just Twitter insults if Hogan actually were to run. Morrill says he could see Trump ordering staff to go through the federal budget and find ways to harm the state.
“It would be a terrible political mistake in Maryland,” Morrill said. “This is not a president who is nice to people who look like they’re going to come against him. He would go to ugly lengths against Maryland. Who knows what the president would do to attack the state of Maryland?”
And in Morrill’s view, Hogan has next-to-zero chance of appealing to a national electorate.
“The unique circumstances that have allowed him to be palatable to Democratic voters in Maryland is not what appeals to Democrats nationwide at all,” Morrill said.
“And what he has had to do to stay in good graces with Maryland Democrats kills him nationally with Republicans.”
But Niskanen’s Taylor, who has been pushing Hogan to run, sees weakness in the president’s numbers. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found nearly 1 in 3 Republicans say they would like to nominate someone other than Trump to be the party’s candidate for president.
And Taylor predicts the GOP base might begin to leave Trump by 2020 amid a federal investigation into his administration, continued gridlock in Washington and an economy that could take a downward turn.
Taylor noted the National Republican Committee and the Trump campaign have merged efforts for the president’s re-election campaign — a move he sees as a sign of weakness.
“I think they’re acting scared. Those numbers explain why they're panicking over a primary challenge,” Taylor said. “I don’t think there’s any real time pressure here. [Hogan] can make a decision by the end of the summer and still be competitive.”
Chris Carr, political director for the Trump campaign, has said that the president’s re-election effort is “better organized than any campaign in history, especially with the support of the Republican Party, which is firmly behind this president.”
Trump's campaign and affiliated committees announced Thursday they raised more than $21 million in the final three months of 2018.
Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said for Hogan — or any Republican — to successfully challenge Trump, the candidate would need to thread an almost impossibly small needle: figuring out a way to criticize the president without alienating his largely loyal base.
“It would take a real messaging master to figure out how to be able to criticize Trump in a way that’s persuasive to Republicans,” Kondik said. “I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I just don’t know how he would do it.”
Kondik said the way to tell whether Hogan is actually getting serious is to follow the money.
“If he gets a Super PAC, if he gets some sort of fundraising apparatus set up on his behalf, that would be an indicator,” Kondik said. “If I were Hogan and I wanted to run for president, I would do things on a very low level and check back in the summertime and see if there’s more of an appetite then.”
But Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, thinks if Hogan starts to get serious about running, he’ll just say it.
“He’ll tell ya’,” Steele said. “He’ll come out and he’ll say, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
If that happens, Steele predicted, Hogan would not engage in Twitter fights with the president.
“Larry is mature enough not to respond,” Steele said.
Hogan told CNN that he’s happy his openness to running hasn’t yet drawn the ire of Trump.
“I’m kind of surprised there haven’t been any tweets yet, but I’m glad,” the governor said.
Glendening, a veteran of Prince George’s County politics with Hogan’s father, the late congressman Lawrence Hogan Sr., said he would advise the governor against running. But he argued if Hogan were to do so, it would be a positive step for the country.
“At least he is stimulating a conversation within the Republican Party that says: Maybe we can address some of these issues and maybe we can have a different tone,” Glendening said. “I think that’s actually good for America and not just the Republican Party.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.