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Marylanders love Larry Hogan for who he is - and isn’t

Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan during the unveiling of his Class Act, at the State House last month. A new poll shows Maryland voters approve his performance in office by a 3-to-1 margin.
Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan during the unveiling of his Class Act, at the State House last month. A new poll shows Maryland voters approve his performance in office by a 3-to-1 margin. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

He’s more popular than Martin O’Malley ever was as governor. He out-polls his one-time boss, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. And don’t even put Parris Glendening in the conversation. Not since a first-term William Donald Schaefer was practically crowned by grateful voters a third of a century ago have Marylanders taken as strong a liking to their elected executive as they have to Larry Joseph Hogan Jr. The latest poll from Gonzales Research & Media Services gives him a 75% approval rating. That might make him the most popular governor in the United States (at least one previous poll had him running second behind Charlie Baker of Massachusetts). All of which raises the question: How does a Republican governor in such a thoroughly Democratic-leaning state, pull that off?

Mr. Hogan has benefited from a strong economy and stable period in state governance. In that respect, he owes much to Mr. O’Malley, who raised taxes to address a state budget shortfall. Mr. Hogan not only got to rail against those taxes when he ran for office, but thanks to all that revenue, he’s had money to spend on everything from new school buildings to road improvements. State government is, in most respects, little changed since he was first sworn into office in 2015, however, and voters like the calm. They also like his regular-guy, favorite uncle qualities; his pro-business outlook and his personal story of cancer survival.

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But what really boosts Mr. Hogan in his native state is that he’s everything President Trump is not: He’s not especially partisan (at least by comparison), he’s not egocentric, and he’s not unwilling to work with Democrats. He doesn’t lash out at minorities or serve up thousands of blatant lies each year or staff the State House with extremists and sycophants. He’s mindful of the need to sometimes regulate, to spare the Chesapeake Bay from further pollution, for example. And he’s not averse to science or reason and is clearly not stuck in conservative Republican orthodoxy. (In a different state, he might be labeled a RINO — a Republican In Name Only — but given the Democratic Party’s dominance in Maryland, rank-and-file Republicans recognize they are fortunate to have captured the state’s top office, no matter where the holders stands on the issues, so complaints from the right flank are rare.)

The proof is in the numbers. Governor Hogan’s approval marks have steadily risen, from 39% in one February 2015 poll, conducted shortly after he took office, to 58% later that year, and into the 60s in 2016. But they hit the 70s and stayed there once President Trump took office. Indeed, the latest figures from Gonzales show that, as popular as Governor Hogan may be, Marylanders are largely horrified by President Trump.

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Gonzales pegged Maryland voter disapproval of the president at 61%, polling worst with younger, female and minority voters. Just as in other states, Democratic respondents truly detest Mr. Trump, while Republicans overwhelmingly approve of him. But then compare those reactions to Mr. Hogan’s support, which is broad and bipartisan: Maryland’s governor is viewed favorably nearly as much by Democrats (73%) as Republicans (77%) and exactly as much by men (75%) as women (75%). Perhaps the most telling result in the Gonzales poll is that Marylanders are relatively tepid about where the state is headed even as they “love their gov,” with just 56% saying it’s headed in the “right direction.”

All of that popularity would seem to put Governor Hogan in a favorable position as the General Assembly reconvened for its annual 90-day session Wednesday. It might also have Republicans looking ahead to 2022 and the possibility that the governor might challenge incumbent Chris Van Hollen for his U.S. Senate seat. Still, Mr. Hogan hasn’t triggered a rush to Republican voter registration in this state, and adding another GOP vote to the Senate would be a tough pill for a blue state to swallow.

And Mr. Hogan’s popularity is no lock. Several factors could turn his latest poll numbers into a distant memory, including: his unwillingness to support the boost in school spending recommended by the Kirwan education commission; his chronic neglect of Baltimore, particularly as crime has emerged as the top issue with Maryland voters; questions surrounding his outside real estate income; and his lame-duck political status in Annapolis.

For now, however, Mr. Hogan deserves to enjoy his good numbers. He earned them — with a little help from the current White House occupant.

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