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Why Governor Hogan should skip the GOP convention

Democratic Congressman John Delaney sent a mobile billboard to circle the Maryland State House Wednesday and needle Republican Gov. Larry Hogan about whether the governor will support Donald Trump if he wins the Republican nomination for president. (Erin Cox/The Baltimore Sun)

Among the more interesting phenomena occurring this political season: the way Democrats tried to "help" Gov. Larry Hogan address the Donald Trump phenomenon.

It all started with Congressman John Delaney, himself a mild-mannered wannabe governor, uncharacteristically demanding that Governor Hogan announce his support or opposition to the New York billionaire, and using a mobile billboard to pressure him into it. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, another gubernatorial aspirant, and Congressman/U.S. Senate candidate Chris Van Hollen followed suit, urging the governor to "come clean" on Mr. Trump.

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One wonders where Democrats Delaney, Kamenetz and Van Hollen stand on the ethical peccadilloes of their own party's likely presidential nominee, whose high disapproval numbers mirror Mr. Trump's according to some polling. As for Governor Hogan, his approval rating clocks in at 70 percent in the latest Gonzales poll — a height few Democratic governors ever achieve in this bluest of blue states.

With attempts to undermine the governor's legislative agenda failing to give state Democrats any traction, pinning Governor Hogan to Mr. Trump seemed like a logical, if desperate, Plan B. They hoped to narrow Governor Hogan's appeal by linking him to a controversial political figure simply by virtue of party affiliation.

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It's Wile E. Coyote politics at its most obvious.

But without any fanfare or apparent backlash, Governor Hogan declared his non-support for Mr. Trump last week, while repudiating the entire GOP presidential nominating process. In effect, he is treating the 2016 presidential campaign dismissively, as if it were a remote phenomenon of little relevance to Marylanders.

So far, the latest attempt to lure Governor Hogan into the political briar patch seems to have tanked for two reasons. First, no evidence exists that ordinary Marylanders were ever clamoring for the governor to weigh in on the Trump phenomenon. With the exception of a handful of political activists, most people here seem to be tuning it out. Second, while a governor is the titular head of the state chapter of his political party, any governor can embrace or eschew this role as he sees fit.

William Donald Schaefer demonstrated this reality in 1992, when he endorsed George H. W. Bush over Bill Clinton. Many of Schaefer's fellow Democrats were furious over his perceived transgression, but it did not preclude Schaefer from launching a comeback in 1998 when he ran for comptroller.

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True, Governor Hogan did support New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who in turn helped him get elected in 2014 and rallied behind him during his cancer scare. But this gesture was as much personal as it was anything else. Further, political endorsements need not be transferable.

Moving forward, the best course of action for Governor Hogan to take is to encourage citizens to vote their conscience and — most importantly — avoid the party's nominating convention in Cleveland, as he has indicated he may do.

First, engaging in presidential politics yields no discernible benefits for Governor Hogan. Maryland hasn't gone red in a presidential election in almost 30 years, and all available polling indicates that Hillary Clinton is a prohibitive favorite. It is unlikely the GOP's 2016 presidential nominee — whether it is Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich or some convention-driven dark horse candidate — will carry Maryland.

Second, parachuting into the GOP presidential nominating contest would damage the governor's carefully constructed brand. Governor Hogan was elected despite being a Republican. To that end, he largely kept his distance from the Maryland GOP during the 2014 campaign and emphasized issues that had a centrist, nonpartisan appeal such as taxes, spending and transforming the culture of Annapolis.

Third, while conventions are fun and memorable events — I worked at the successful GOP convention in Philadelphia in 2000 — Governor Hogan personally is not required to be there.

By attending, Governor Hogan would be the leader of the state's delegation, and it would be his prerogative to cast the state's votes during the televised roll call of states. He could just as easily defer this role, and the resulting media attention, to someone else — perhaps the party's nominee for the U.S. Senate — as a party building gesture.

Many politicos raise funds against the backdrop of a party convention. But the everyday proximity of Washington affords Governor Hogan many similar opportunities.

By continuing to speak out against Mr. Trump, Governor Hogan would have no more of an impact on Mr. Trump's prospects than Mitt Romney has. All it would accomplish is to render Governor Hogan a temporary curiosity for a national media seeking evidence of division among Republicans.

The best way for Governor Hogan to address his critics is by continuing to focus on his stewardship of the state. Sometimes, even in politics, eloquence of action speaks more loudly than words.

Richard J. Cross III is a former Capitol Hill and Annapolis press secretary and speechwriter. He resides in Baltimore. His e-mail address is rcrossiii@comcast.net.

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