Shortly after Donald Trump became president, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan met him in the White House.
Hogan, the unlikely Republican governor of a state Trump lost by nearly 30 points, was doubtful the president knew who he was. But Trump is a close watcher of polls.
“I can’t believe how popular you are in that deep blue state,” Trump said as the men shook hands in a receiving line of governors from across the country. “You know how badly I lost that state?”
For nearly four years, Hogan has done something almost unthinkable for a Republican in Maryland: maintain sky-high job approval ratings. Hogan consistently polls as one of the most popular governors in the country. That’s in part because he’s adopted as many moderate — or even liberal — positions on issues as he has conservative stances.
To be sure, Hogan has infuriated some voters upset with his decisions, such as canceling the $2.9 billion Red Line project across Baltimore, which he dismissed as a costly boondoggle.
These critics contend Hogan would abandon moderation and turn sharply to the right if he wins a second term in November, saying he’d have nothing to lose because he’s limited to two terms.
The governor pledges that won’t happen.
“What we’ve been doing has been working so well, I can’t imagine that it would make sense to throw all that out and do the opposite,” Hogan says.
On a recent Saturday, Hogan’s appeal was on display as the Republican worked the crowd at the Darlington Apple Festival in Harford County. He couldn’t walk more than five steps without attendees asking him to pose for a photo. He seemed just as at ease with supporters wearing Trump’s signature “Make American Great Again” hats as he did with those who said they were registered Democrats.
“Everybody loves you,” Rose Kreis, 77, of Perry Hall, called out to Hogan as he walked through rows of pit beef and kettle corn stands.
“You’re a shoo-in, we know that,” said Doug Trent, 66, of Bel Air.
Hogan, 62, has achieved popularity through a blend of factors: a disciplined message focused on pocket-book issues; a knack for back-slapping, puppy-kissing retail politics; and — perhaps most importantly — choosing the populist side of many issues.
Hogan, who owns a real estate firm and learned the tricks of politics through trial and error, does this in part through frequent use of private polls. In the past year alone, he has spent at least $580,000 in campaign funds on surveys from five different vendors, asking questions about fellow candidates and the issues. He often cites poll results when promoting policies, such as pushing for tax cuts and gerrymandering reform or defending his order to push the start of the public school year until after Labor Day.
“We do it every 90 days now,” Hogan says of the polling. “It’s a good indicator for how the electorate is feeling.”
“It’s so stunning that he can continue to say, ‘I’m just a simple business person and not a politician,’” says Montgomery County state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, who ran for governor in this year’s Democratic primary.
“He probably is the most talented politician we’ve ever had in the modern era.”
Hogan’s experience in politics began as a 10-year-old Catholic school student in Prince George’s County when he campaigned for his father, Lawrence Hogan, a former FBI agent who was running for Congress.
In 1974, the elder Hogan was the first Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to openly advocate for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon amid the Watergate scandal.
“My dad is my hero,” Hogan says.
After getting a degree in government from Florida State University, the younger Hogan waged his own campaign. In 1981, at the age of 24, he ran for Congress and, he says, “got smoked.” Hogan tried again about a decade later and nearly unseated Rep. Steny Hoyer.
“The best advice my dad ever gave me was, ‘Don’t make politics your career,’” Hogan says. “It’s an important thing to get involved in, to try to make a difference, but go get a real job.”
Hogan started dabbling in real estate with his mom, Nora, buying an Ocean City condo and then other small properties. From there he founded his business in 1985. The Annapolis-based Hogan Cos. have completed more than $2 billion in deals, largely in suburban areas.
Hogan has not divested from the firm’s real estate holdings, opting instead to put them into a trust managed by his former top aides, an arrangement approved by the state’s ethics commission.
Profits from the firm have allowed Hogan to accrue $2.4 million during his first three years in office, according to his tax returns.
During the tenure of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, Hogan began to mull another run for office. In Hogan’s view, O’Malley was signing off on too many tax and fee hikes, including a stormwater remediation fee meant to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay — which Hogan vilified as a “rain tax.” In 2011, Hogan created the organization Change Maryland to whip up discontent. Its Facebook page accumulated about 275,000 followers.
State Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican, said the anti-tax movement in Maryland “needed a voice and Larry Hogan became that voice.”
After an upset victory of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Hogan made a point to do some things differently than the last Republican governor, Robert Ehrlich, who was accused of partisan firings and lasted one term. Nearly half of Hogan’s cabinet are Democrats.
While Hogan was settling into the job, a crisis exploded. In April 2015, looting and arson broke out in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Hogan ordered the Maryland National Guard to intervene — and spent the next week walking the streets and talking to residents.
Just weeks later, Hogan went on a trade mission to Asia. In Japan, while shaving, he noticed a lump in his throat.
Hogan called a June press conference to announce he’d been diagnosed with a "very advanced and very aggressive" cancer that had spread throughout his body. He remained upbeat.
“My odds of getting through this and beating this are much, much better than the odds I had of beating Anthony Brown," Hogan joked.
After chemotherapy, the newly bald governor appeared back in public in July to announce he was shutting down the state-run Baltimore jail. Hogan sported sunglasses and a neon green tie. He made it clear he was coming back strong.
"The Baltimore City Detention Center is a disgrace, and its conditions are horrendous," Hogan thundered. "Ignoring it was irresponsible and one of the biggest failures of leadership in the history of the state of Maryland."
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, says it was around this time pundits first saw a “bump” in Hogan’s approval rating.
"His favorability stayed long after the cancer was gone,” Eberly said.
Hogan’s governorship has been helped by improving economic conditions nationally. Since he took office, Maryland has added about 145,000 jobs and the unemployment rate has dropped from 5.7 percent to 4.2 percent. But Hogan credits his policies — from changing Maryland’s welcome signs to say “Open for Business” to eliminating regulations and cutting taxes and fees — with helping in the recovery.
Most Maryland voters now tell pollsters they believe the state is headed in the right direction, the opposite of four years ago.
During that time, Hogan has been careful in his dealings with the Trump administration, deeply unpopular among many Maryland Democrats. The governor has spoken out against some of the president’s actions (such as separating the children of immigrant families from their parents) without alienating an administration that Maryland needs to work with.
“I was the first Republican governor to say I wasn’t going to support or endorse President Trump,” Hogan says.
But where Hogan sees independence, some Democrats see weakness. They argue Hogan has been tepid in his opposition to Trump and that the Democratic nominee for governor, former NAACP president Ben Jealous, would be more forceful.
Jealous, they also argue, is the candidate with a bold agenda to fix Maryland’s problems, including converting the state to a Medicare-for-all system, providing tuition-free four-year college and reducing the state’s prison population by 30 percent.
Hogan bristles at the suggestion that Jealous is the candidate of big ideas. “They’re big, really bad ideas,” he says.
The governor says he’s offering more responsible plans.
He partnered with Democratic leaders in the General Assembly to shore up Obamacare, leading to a recent reduction of up to 17 percent in health care rates. He has backed a merit-based system in which students from poor and middle-class families who maintain good grades could get free college tuition. And he signed a Justice Reinvestment Act credited with keeping some nonviolent offenders out of jail.
Often, public sentiment in Maryland helps push the governor to the left. But sometimes, Hogan moves to the right. He joined other mostly GOP governors in 2015 in asking the federal government to bar Syrian refugees from their states until better vetting procedures were established, and he justified it by citing polls. Some critics remember that moment as a low mark in Hogan’s tenure.
“It was a very disturbing time,” said Zainab Chaudry, director of Maryland outreach for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It reinforced the idea that Maryland is not a welcoming state for refugees.”
But more often than not, Hogan has moved left. He said a proposal from House Speaker Michael Busch to enshrine abortion rights in Maryland’s constitution sounded like a “great idea.” He called for a delay in the confirmation process for Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. And he signed every piece of gun control legislation that crossed his desk.
Paul Brockman, a spokesman for the gun rights group Patriot Pickett, said he knows some gun owners who plan to stay home rather than vote for Hogan a second time. “We have been disappointed with Governor Hogan. When he came into office, he said he wasn’t going to change any gun laws. We took him at his word.”
State Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has endorsed Hogan, said he sees merit in Hogan’s philosophy of fiscal restraint.
“This is the first Republican I’ve ever endorsed — ever,” Brochin said. “He’s a populist governor. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t have principles. His biggest principle is, ‘We need to live within our means.’”
That “live within our means” approach opens Hogan up to criticism that he hasn’t invested enough in cash-strapped Baltimore and its schools.
Hogan says the state has done “everything we can possibly do to help the city,” often saying his administration has spent more on Baltimore and its schools than any previous governor.
Critics point out he did that mostly by using funding formulas already in state law. And they argue far more state aid is needed to help city students.
“While the governor has been outwardly saying he values the city of Baltimore, his actions have said otherwise,” Scott said.