President Donald Trump’s response to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying national economic collapse undermines not only his own reelection chances, but the style of politics he has stamped upon the Republican Party. For the time being, few Republican elected officials dare to challenge Trump, despite his frequent inaccuracies and costly missteps. But if the president’s promised V-shaped recovery fails to materialize by fall and costs him a second term, it’s entirely possible that the party’s repressed realists–and even the disillusioned faithful–will begin to rebel. And one of the likely leaders of any movement toward a less Trump-influenced GOP is Maryland’s Republican governor Larry Hogan.
Polls show growing public unhappiness with the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Two-thirds of Americans–and even one-third of Republicans and GOP-leaning voters–believe that Trump failed to react quickly enough during the early stages when the outbreak could have been better contained. Unlike his predecessors (and other world leaders), Trump received only a slight and fleeting “rally ‘round the flag” bump in his job approval rating, largely because he has shunned the traditional role of “comforter-in-chief” in a time of national crisis.
The public and media spotlight has therefore fallen on American’s state governors. Those who have embraced their roles as crisis managers on the front lines of the pandemic have mostly seen their public approval increase as a result. As chair of the National Governors Association, Larry Hogan has been a prominent voice among the state leaders. In both his words and actions, he has illuminated the sharp contrast between Trump’s approach to the pandemic and that of the activist governors, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Above all, Hogan has relied on science and expertise to inform his decision-making.. In the second week of February–when Trump was claiming that there were only a dozen cases of infections in the country and predicted that soon “it miraculously goes away”–a prudent Hogan convened a meeting of two dozen governors with members of the White House coronavirus task force including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield. Hogan returned to Maryland and worked with the Democratic-controlled state legislature to fund emergency preparations for combating the virus, including increased hospital bed capacity.
In early March, when Trump was telling reporters “Just stay calm, it will go away,” Hogan created a state coronavirus response team drawing on epidemiologists and public health doctors from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, and other state institutions. On March 12, when there were still only a handful of recorded cases in the state and no virus-related fatalities, Hogan followed the experts’ recommendation and made Maryland the second state in the nation (after Ohio) to close public schools. While Trump has belittled expertise, Hogan has emphasized that “I’ve been listening to the scientists and the doctors.”
At the same time that Trump has used his high-visibility press briefings to air personal grievances, deflect blame, and criticize the media, Hogan has used his platform to advocate for the needs of the revenue-starved states and has effectively communicated the severity of the crisis to the public. While Trump has seized upon the crisis as an opportunity for partisan warfare, Hogan has insisted that “now is not the time for partisan politics” and worked with governors of both parties, cooperated with Democrats in the state legislature, and coordinated a regional response with the Democratic governor of Virginia and mayor of Washington, DC.
While Trump’s response to the pandemic has been chaotic and full of unsupported assertions, Hogan has tried to project steadiness, truthfulness, and informed decision-making. He hasn’t hesitated to push back against Trump’s wilder claims. When the president speculated that he would reopen the country by Easter, the governor responded that such an action would be “very harmful” and “we would obviously not listen to that.” When Trump alleged that coronavirus testing was widely available and readily accessible, Hogan bluntly countered, “That’s just not true.” Hogan has further called Trump’s tweeted demands to “liberate” states “unhelpful,” and added that the “mixed messaging” between the White House’s official three-phase plan to reopen the states and Trump’s encouragement of the protests against public safety measures “doesn’t make any sense.”
Hogan recently relied on his Korean-born wife Yumi to broker a deal in which Maryland procured half a million test kits from suppliers in South Korea. Trump disparaged this action, claiming that there was sufficient testing capability in the state and that “If the Governor of Maryland could have called Mike Pence, he could have saved a lot of money. I don’t think he needed to go to South Korea. I think he needed to get a little knowledge.” Hogan diplomatically responded that “The administration made it clear over and over again they want the states to take the lead, and we have to go out and do it ourselves, and so that’s exactly what we did.”
But Hogan didn’t back down from his insistence that Maryland, and indeed all states, needed more tests and equipment.He has forcefully maintained, in his press conferences and multiple media appearances, that the federal government must help states secure access to the test kits, personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other equipment that they need.
Hogan refused to endorse or vote for Trump, and throughout his time in office has offered his own views and actions in direct contrast to the president. However, he hasn’t tried to pick fights with Trump in the past or over the response to the current crisis. It seems that, in Hogan’s estimation, that wouldn’t be in the best interest of Maryland or the other governors that he now represents in negotiations with the administration.
Until recently, this approach and Hogan’s rapport with the Vice President has helped him maintain a working relationship with the White House and a comfortable political distance from the president. But now that Trump is forced to share the national spotlight with the governor, the president’s irritation with Hogan’s insufficiently deferential approach appears to be growing. Hogan hasn’t been on the receiving end of an @realDonaldTrump tweet-storm – yet. But at one of his recent briefings, the president boasted to reporters that “The governors are all saying good things” about the administration’s response to the pandemic, aside from “the Democrat governors and a couple of RINOs… one RINO in particular.” Few political observers had any doubt about the identity of that one “Republican in Name Only.”
Of course, Hogan’s credentials as a lifelong Republican are sound. His father and namesake was a Republican Congressman in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Hogan consistently has acted in that older tradition of Republicanism. He’s an economic conservative but no culture warrior. Throughout his two terms in office, he has clashed with Democrats over his conservative positions on fiscal policy, transportation, school choice and criminal justice issues, but has also cooperated with them to stabilize healthcare premiums, pass sensible gun control laws and, most recently, respond to COVID-19.
The result of this combative bipartisanship is a state government that, for the most part, functions effectively. Indeed, Marylanders have consistently viewed the state as heading in the right direction since Hogan took office, and he enjoys some of the highest approval ratings of any elected official in the country.
Hogan’s un-Trump-like approach to governing (particularly during the present crisis), combined with his willingness to stand up to a Republican president, means that many political observers see him as making an implicit case for a post-Trump party. In contrast with Trump’s chaotic and antagonistic populism, Hogan embodies a Republican Party that embraces competence, steadiness, a mixture of traditional conservatism with independence-minded moderation, and get-things-done pragmatism rather than scorched-earth partisanship or rigid ideology.
Hogan also stands for a Republican Party that can win elections in blue states and respond to the country’s changing demographics. In the 2018 election, Hogan bested the Democratic “blue wave” and won reelection with majorities of the very groups whose defection from the GOP cost the party control of the House of Representatives: college-educated voters and independents. He also closed the gender gap and won over a third of nonwhite voters, including nearly thirty percent of African Americans, even though his opponent was a nationally-known black Democrat. And he expanded his electoral appeal while retaining the loyalty of state Republicans, who consistently give the governor stronger approval ratings than the president. Hogan has found a way to separate himself from Trump without being so aggressively anti-Trump that it prevents him from appealing to the GOP base.
In an interview last summer, when he was considering challenging Trump in the Republican presidential primary, Hogan remarked that “at some point, there’s no longer going to be a Donald Trump Party. There’s going to be a Republican Party.” If Trump fails to win reelection this year, Hogan’s response to the coronavirus pandemic will have offered a strong case for what a post-Trump Republican Party might look like.
Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts polling on Maryland politics and policy. She is also an associate professor of political science.