Conventional wisdom suggests that a Maryland governor wrapping up a second four-year term is the equivalent of steamed Chesapeake Bay blue crabs left out in the hot sun: Whatever you may have thought of them before, they’re starting to stink up the place now. In Martin O’Malley’s final full year in office in 2014, his approval rating hovered around 41%. Parris Glendening famously had ratings so low (consistently among the lowest of any governor in the nation) that Democratic candidates kept him at arm’s length. And William Donald Schaefer? The former Baltimore mayor who was swept into the governor’s office with a landslide 82% of the vote in 1986 left the second floor of the State House with a feeble 39% approval rating in 1995. In Maryland politics, the bigger they start, the harder they fall.
Until Larry Hogan, that is.
A Goucher College Poll released this week pegged Governor Hogan’s approval rating at 68%, which is, to put it mildly, a stunning achievement for any second term governor. let alone a Republican in a state that is overwhelmingly Democratic. The survey of about 700 Maryland residents has a margin of error of 3.7%, but with numbers like these, it could be twice that and still be enviable. Joe Biden can only dream of such approval; although the president won Maryland handily last year, his approval rating in the Free State has dipped to 53%, according to the Goucher poll. While that is slightly better than President Biden’s national numbers, it is still 15 points behind Mr. Hogan.
There are likely several factors going on here, some attributable to Mr. Hogan, some to his circumstances. Take, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic. His crisis management choices, though not always as strong as we would have liked, have served him well. Taking a hard stance early to slow the spread, engaging in frequent press conferences to keep the public informed, and his all-in support for vaccinations helped produce positive results. And then there was his unwillingness to fall in line with Donald Trump, before, during and after Mr. Trump’s presidency. Governor Hogan’s criticisms of the president — ”stop golfing and concede” was among the messages he dispatched to Mr. Trump after the election — also hit a sweet spot with Marylanders who proudly recognized their governor was no Trump cultist. It also did not hurt that Mr. Hogan was a cancer survivor and an everyman in both style and appearance who seems to genuinely enjoy grassroots campaigning.
But perhaps as critical to Mr. Hogan’s popularity is what he hasn’t done. His agenda with the General Assembly over the last seven years has been modest at best. As a result, he hasn’t gotten into major political battles or stirred antagonism as tax increases, regulatory reforms, environmental initiatives and the like inevitably do. The most notable achievement of his time in office may prove to be the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the sweeping educational reform bill to promote better funding, equity and achievement in K-12 schools. He vetoed it. Lawmakers had to override it. Yet the same Goucher poll that found Mr. Hogan to be so popular also determined that a majority (54%) think Maryland spends too little on public education. Apparently, the governor’s opposition to education spending was of no consequence. That’s some serious Teflon-level protection there.
Still, the more interesting question is: Can Governor Hogan’s popularity transfer to other Republican candidates? So far, there’s little evidence that it does. In 2018, the GOP hoped his popularity would help them gain five more seats in the state Senate (enough to prevent veto overrides) but netted only one. The chances that the GOP will retain the governorship post-Hogan are generally seen as small to middling. Even Mr. Hogan’s potential future ambitions, either running to represent Maryland in the U.S. Senate or for president in 2024, seem longshot given the headlock Mr. Trump continues to have over the Republican Party on the national level.
That doesn’t make Mr. Hogan’s popularity within Maryland meaningless. It just means it only goes so far. Time will tell whether he’s permanently changed the political landscape or was the equivalent of a one-hit wonder bursting through the Top-40 a second time. Even in progressive Maryland, there’s no surfeit of moderate Republicans waiting in the wings to run for statewide office. Duplicating Mr. Hogan’s success might prove an even more daunting task than polling well toward the end of a second gubernatorial term.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.