Is it possible to envision a different path forward for the Republican Party – one that might allow the GOP to once again become a big-tent, majoritarian party without the excesses of Donald Trump and his imitators? Mileah Kromer, a political scientist and pollster at Goucher College, sees such an alternative in the career of Republican politician Larry Hogan Jr., who served two terms as governor in heavily Democratic Maryland from 2015 to 2022.
Kromer examines the ingredients of Hogan’s success in her new biography, Blue-State Republican: How Larry Hogan Won Where Republicans Lose and Lessons for a Future GOP. She concludes that Hogan’s fiscally conservative, pragmatic approach to government, combined with his rejection of culture-war grievances and Trump-style populism, allowed him to make inroads with groups that Republicans typically struggle to attract, including college-educated voters, women, suburbanites, and racial minorities. Maryland is one of the most diverse states in the country, and African-Americans – a group that has voted overwhelmingly against Republicans for more than 60 years – make up nearly one-third of the population. And yet 28 percent of black voters in Maryland cast their ballots for Hogan in 2018, even though his Democratic opponent was Benjamin Jealous, a former president of the NAACP.
Hogan’s success in Maryland offers a potential path for the Republican Party to take if it wishes to win popular majorities in a diversifying America. In this podcast interview, Kromer speculates about Hogan’s presidential possibilities for 2024, and concludes that while he would have difficulties in getting through the MAGA-dominated Republican primaries, his independence, authenticity, and ability to reach beyond traditional GOP constituencies might give him a real shot.
Mileah Kromer: A lot of Republicans had been against Trump even in the primary, and sort of wishy-washy with him during the general, but they pretty quickly fell in line after. Hogan was always just, “No.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice from the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m delighted to be joined today by Mileah Kromer. She is an associate professor of political science at Goucher College, where she is director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics. In that capacity, she oversees the Goucher College Poll, which measures the opinions of Maryland residents and voters on important policy, social, and economic issues. Since Mileah created the Goucher Poll a decade ago, it has become a highly respected survey that is cited frequently by national media outlets. In fact, it would be fair to say that the Goucher Poll is just one of a handful of high-quality polls that exist anywhere in the country which focus on state races and state issues.
And over the past ten years, Mileah has built a wide Twitter following and has become a go-to expert for national and state reporters as well as a regular commentator on podcasts and public affairs programs. And she is the author of a brand-new biography of Maryland’s two-term former Republican governor Larry Hogan Jr., entitled Blue-State Republican: How Larry Hogan Won Where Republicans Lose and Lessons for a Future GOP. Congratulations, Mileah, and welcome!
Mileah Kromer: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted to be here, and I’m so glad. Again, with the book, I think your listeners should know that you are actually acknowledged as somebody who helped me out along the way in writing it.
Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to read the book in manuscript a while ago, and you’ve definitely done wonders with it even since then. And I guess it’s technically true that the book actually comes out tomorrow at the time we’re speaking, but by the time the podcast comes out, the book will be out and available for purchase.
Mileah Kromer: Wonderful. Yep.
Geoff Kabaservice: You and I met the first time in the sepia-toned pre-pandemic days, which was probably about four years ago. Had you at that point decided to write about Larry Hogan yet, or was that a decision that was still in the future?
Mileah Kromer: Well, I’ll put you on the timeline of how the book came to be. So in 2014, Larry Hogan comes on the scene in Maryland. He beats Anthony Brown. It’s one of the biggest upsets in the country. Nobody really expected this Republican, who not that many people had heard of, to upset a two-term lieutenant governor. So in 2015 he assumes office. It’s a pretty quiet sort of first session. At the end of the first session, we have the big Baltimore uprising and as well as he has cancer — in July that year he announces that he has cancer. We check back in with him, in terms of a public opinion poll, in September, and it turns out he has a 60-plus approval rating, which is really high for a Maryland Republican. And it has not dropped below 60 since. And so that became, for me, as somebody who does public opinion polling for a living, it’s interesting that any governor can sustain those kinds of numbers, particularly a Republican governor in a state where 55% of the registered voters are Democrats.
And so you start to see the sort of foundation of the Hogan coalition forming in 2014, but really kind of coming together during that first term. And as he’s gearing up to run again for reelection, Trump has now been elected as president. It’s caused all sorts of havoc for folks like Hogan who have not boarded the Trump train. And I started to look at the race and it’s like, “Boy, this is really interesting. Either this Trump drag is going to wash Hogan out of office, it’s not going to matter that he has a 70% approval rating. I should really write about this. And isn’t it such an interesting happenstance that this guy still has such high approvals?”
And so I run into Hogan coming outside of WBAL Radio. He and I were both doing radio hits about the election. I was doing analysis of him and he was coming in sort of right after me to do his regular scheduled WBAL hit. And I figured, why not shoot my shot? So I say to him, “Governor, I would like to interview you for a book I want to write about you.” He was taken off-guard, and did exactly what people do to random people who accost a public official in a hallway: he has a staffer give a business card to me and sends me on my way. And then, fast-forward a couple months later, the whole election happens, he wins. And then folks like the Niskanen Center start to pay a little bit of attention to Larry Hogan. And you invited him to “Starting Over: The Center-Right After Trump” — that was the event you invited him to.
Geoff Kabaservice: I ran that conference and I don’t even remember the title of it. So I’m very impressed that you remember that.
Mileah Kromer: Yes. And I was like, “Well, you know what? I’m going to go down and I’m going to go to this conference” — and it was free, so I appreciate the Niskanen Center.
Geoff Kabaservice: You’re welcome.
Mileah Kromer: I took the train down, and it was pretty exciting. I got to see people that I had only read about. I saw Bill Kristol there, so that was an exciting thing for me. I was like, “Oh, wow, I see him all the time in the news.” And so I listened to Hogan give his speech. It sounded very familiar to me. I’ve heard this speech a million times about moderation and building a coalition. And that’s when I decided, “I’m going to reach out to these folks. The people in the Niskanen Center seem to get what Hogan’s trying to do here.” And that’s how you and I met. And then you were gracious and allowed me to come down to the Niskanen Center and sit in some of the Meetings of the Concerned. I did all that, got to know some folks, and that’s how I was able to at least get a grasp on where at least folks in your orbit wanted to see the direction of the Republican Party. And I’m so sorry that was so long-winded, but that’s how the book came to be.
Geoff Kabaservice: No, that’s terrific. And you were very helpful to us early on in our relationship with Larry Hogan, because you understood Maryland politics in a way that we really didn’t. But it’s true that the Niskanen Center, which generally is sympathetic toward politicians from the center-right (whatever that means), saw Hogan as somebody who could make it work, in a sense. Because he was among the most popular governors in the entire country, and somebody who seemed to actually have a coherent governing program — which, again, a lot of Republicans did not. And I particularly remember going to lunch with him on one occasion in the Governor’s House in Annapolis, which was quite interesting. He was a very reserved guy in person in that setting, in comparison to his more extroverted public persona.
But then also I found it very interesting that I attended his second inaugural ball, which was at National Harbor just across the Potomac from Alexandria, Virginia. And he stood there on stage with his purple surfboard, which was his prop to show that he was surfing the Blue Wave as a Republican. But what was fascinating was that on stage was his South Korean-born wife, Yumi, their Asian-American daughters, and Boyd Rutherford, his running mate who’s African American, and his family. And it was probably the most diverse group of people on any Republican stage in that entire evening anywhere in the country. And that was also something that was interesting about Larry Hogan.
But before we talk about Larry Hogan, let’s talk about you. It’s always stuck with me that you grew up in Homer City, Pennsylvania, which is about fifty miles east of Pittsburgh and has a population of less than 2,000 people. What was it like to grow up there?
Mileah Kromer: I am the biggest supporter of my hometown ever. It was lovely to grow up there. I’m a huge proponent of small towns. It was a place where I knew every single kid in my graduating class — there were only eighty of us. It has the sort of “Friday Night Lights” football game kind of vibe to it, it has a Main Street with a pharmacy… So, yeah, it was wonderful like that. Now, it has experienced that political change that we saw in 2016. Homer City, Pennsylvania is in the shadow of the coal mines. Lucerne Mines was right next to my hometown. My grandfather lived in Cresson, Pennsylvania, which was home to some coke ovens. But a lot of immigrants from Eastern Europe, mostly eastern European. Lots of Catholics. Lots of union.
So for years and years and years, Indiana County — and particularly where I lived in Indiana County — was a solidly blue-collar Democratic area. And then, much like we saw in a lot of other working-class, predominantly white areas, you saw the shift that Trump really accelerated — a pattern that was already happening before he came on the scene. And so in terms of the politics of my hometown, we were union, blue-collar Democrats. But my town where I grew up is very representative of the changes we’ve seen in blue-collar areas throughout the country.
Geoff Kabaservice: To the extent that there’s any national cultural awareness of the place where you grew up, it probably comes through the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, which is about Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog and his hometown. Did polka feature prominently in festive social occasions in Homer City?
Mileah Kromer: You better believe it. You can’t go to a wedding without there being polka in a fire hall after-party. And that’s one of the reasons I absolutely love Homer City, Pennsylvania so much. Yeah, both my grandparents were able to polka with the best of them. We had family who could play the accordion. It’s a lovely place to be. I think the things I miss most about my grandparents… My grandfather loved watching the news as much as he loved going to mass. I miss the ethnic food that we used to eat all the time for Christmas and Christmas Eve dinner, like the halushki and the halupki and all the pierogis, and that kind of Slovakian meals. I miss that terribly about my grandparents.
Geoff Kabaservice: Pittsburgh is a city that’s reinvented itself through “eds and meds” — where once there used to be the U. S. Steel headquarters, there’s now the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Has your area in Indiana County suffered some of the economic downturn that a lot of rural areas and postindustrial towns have suffered in America?
Mileah Kromer: Not as bad as some areas have. And I think that’s because in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, there’s an anchor institution where I actually went to undergrad: Indiana University of Pennsylvania. And I think if you look at the towns that survive and thrive in places that have really suffered the gutting of blue-collar jobs, places that have an anchor institution like that seem to do better. And we’ve been lucky enough, I think, to survive because of the fact that the college is there. And not only that, Indiana Regional Medical Center as a big employer. There’s enough other to sort of surround and cushion the area.
We’re rural Pennsylvania, but we are not isolated rural Pennsylvania. It’s very easy to get on a highway to get to Pittsburgh. There are people who live in my hometown who do that. I think that would be a horrible commute, but people do it. You can drive into Pittsburgh — so rural but not isolated. So I think that has really helped, even though when steel left, or when the coal mines really dried up and left, that did cause some economic problems. Fracking on the other hand — and I know that’s very controversial, particularly among my Democratic friends — there’s a lot of fracking and natural gas jobs that are available in that general region.
Geoff Kabaservice: I suppose I should add for confused listeners that Pennsylvania, like New York state, has a lot of towns that are named for states. If you drive through New York, you can come through Alabama, Delaware, Maryland, Wyoming, Florida, you name it. So Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which is your undergraduate alma mater, has nothing to do with Indiana the state.
Mileah Kromer: No. And there’s a California University of Pennsylvania as well. So, yes, exactly. Yeah, it’s a great place. Again, I have nothing but love for my alma mater. I was the first person in my family to go to college. So as a first-generation college student, it gave me the opportunity to eventually go on and get a Ph.D. at Louisiana State. These regional state universities, I think, are just really, really important for giving kids like me a chance to do something different — and end up writing a book about a Republican governor on down the line.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s great. What did you study at IU of P?
Mileah Kromer: I was an economics major, and so I had these plans… I mean, I loved college so much. So my first semester of college, I took Econ 121 — I think it was like “Intro to Macro” — and I was like, “This is great, this is wonderful. I can’t believe all the things I’m learning.” And I was convinced that I was going to be an economist because, I had a professor that I just absolutely… His name was Robert Stonebreaker. He was a professor of economics. He was a Princeton Ph.D. So I was just really enamored with him, and I just thought he was so smart, and I wanted to be like him when I grew up.
And it turns out I’m not good enough at math to be an economist. You have to be exceptional at math. You have to be able to use math as a tool, and math cannot be a hindrance if you want to be an economist. For me, it was always a hindrance. I understood the theories, I understood the concepts, but I could never quite get over the linear algebra or the differential equations leap that you had to be able to do. I was good at statistics though, and I ended up taking some political science classes because I liked politics— because my grandfather was into politics, because we always talked about politics at home. And my advisor, Dr. Stonebreaker, said to me, “You might want to consider going and getting a Ph.D. in political science, or doing public policy. You still can use the quantitative reasoning that you’re good at, but it doesn’t require this high-level mathematics that is stopping you from being great at it.” And that’s what I ended up doing. I applied broadly. I ended up going to… I got accepted to Louisiana State, they gave me a stipend, and I love warm weather. So down I went. I loved it there.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s great. And in Baton Rouge, what was your particular area of focus?
Mileah Kromer: Initially, I went down to Louisiana State and I thought, “I’m going to study Congress. That is what I’m going to do.” And in political science we refer to those folks as “Congress jocks,” because they were the people who really want to do the formal modeling and the high-level sort of mathematics mixed with political science. I just wasn’t into it. I took one course on Congress and I was like, “This is not where it’s at for me.” Then the next semester I took the seminar on state politics, and I was like, “This is where it’s at. This is where all the action happens. This is so interesting.” I loved the fact that you could compare and contrast between the states, and I just really liked the fact of how close state governments were to the people. It just didn’t feel removed. These are random people that you could see on the weekend, and they were working this job part-time and then showing up to the local fair and shaking hands and fixing roads, fixing potholes, and doing these types of things. And I just fell in love with it.
And I also got a job at the Survey Center — the Louisiana State Public Policy Research Lab conducted the Louisiana Survey. And it was, to me, all the math that I learned and liked — that’s what polling is in practice — and I loved it. And you got to ask people what they thought about government, and I believe strongly that government needs to reflect the will of the people. So to me, this was a natural fit. And state politics plus polling is how I ended up at LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab, and then to Elon University, my first job, where we did North Carolina politics for the North Carolina Poll. And then in 2012, I was lucky enough to get the job to start Goucher’s poll, and we’re all Maryland politics all the time.
Geoff Kabaservice: It seems that quite a few of the country’s top polls are based at relatively small colleges and universities like Elon, Goucher, Quinnipiac, Marist… Why is that?
Mileah Kromer: One, I think, because we’re private. I think that actually helps, because nobody really likes to be asking for public money at the same time that you are putting out a poll on the governor and the legislature and some of the public policies. I don’t know if that’s for sure, but that’s my inclination; I wonder if that’s one of the reasons. I would say that it’s oftentimes a strategic investment by colleges. Big schools — your Ivy Leagues and some of the big SEC schools, the big ACC schools that have big, huge sports programs — it’s easy for them to get in the news with a medical breakthrough or championship team. But how does a school like Goucher College get in the news on a regular basis? How do we promote all the great things we’re doing? How can we get a little shine? And doing a public opinion polling center, if you can do it right — you have to be able to do it accurately and with somebody who actually has the background to talk about the numbers appropriately — but if you can do it right, you can contribute to public discourse in the state. And that’s what we’ve done at Goucher.
That’s what we did at Elon University. I had a fantastic mentor there. His name was Hunter Bacot. He ran the Elon University poll, and I was his assistant director. He was super media savvy and he was really great at trying to craft survey instruments that allowed everyday North Carolinians to weigh in on government. That’s the sort of lessons I learned there, and I took them with me to Maryland. And a lot of schools do this. Small schools with really well-known public opinion firms are great at asking questions that are compelling, either locally or on the national stage, and they’re really great at putting out methodologically rigorous numbers that aren’t influenced by interest groups or funding sources or anything like that.
Geoff Kabaservice: So let’s go back to Larry Hogan then. He’s born in 1956, and he’s actually a second-generation Maryland politician because his father, Larry Hogan Sr., was a member of the House of Representatives and probably gained most national notoriety by being the first Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to vote for Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Larry Hogan’s father paid a political price for going up against the leader of his party, because when he ran for governor in 1974, he lost in the primary on the Republican side. And this was because many Republican voters felt that he had been disloyal to Nixon, who was a man to whom he should have pledged his absolute fealty.
Mileah Kromer: That’s right. And Hogan talks about this a lot. So the Governor — and I think it certainly rang true for him in 2016 when everybody was pledging fealty to Donald Trump after he won unexpectedly and bested Hillary Clinton. But a lot of Republicans who had been against Trump even in the primary, and wishy-washy with him during the general, they pretty quickly fell in line after. Hogan was always just, “No.” He was always hands-off. He went to the Trump inauguration and I think issued a really bland statement of, “I look forward to working with this administration just like the last one” — something to that effect, I’m paraphrasing there.
But his father’s influence is very, I think, important because of the idea of political courage. And his father’s ability to have that really big historical moment of courage to stand up and say, “What Nixon did was wrong. And not only is it wrong, it’s impeachable,” and it costing him so much… I think that Hogan really identified with a big part of that story after Trump becomes President of the United States.
I’ll say that on the Democratic side, the criticism from Maryland Democrats is that Hogan was never critical enough. He was critical-lite, and he avoided for the most part dealing with Trump. So he would ignore Trump rather than actually deal with it, and his criticisms never rose to the occasion. And I think that’s just a matter of perspective who you think is right. If you think that for Larry Hogan it was enough that he was a Republican and criticized the leader of his party, or if you think at this point in American history that he should have been as critical as the Democrats in Maryland were at the time — that’s I think, again, a matter of perception.
Geoff Kabaservice: So Larry Hogan Jr. does not work his way up the political ladder. He’s a developer for most of his early career. But then in 2011 he starts an organization with another co-founder called Change Maryland, which is a response to the taxations that Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley had levied in the wake of the 2008 great recession.
Mileah Kromer: That’s right. And I think where Change Maryland is interesting is not just because it becomes this, finally, a Republican oppositional voice that’s actually starting to catch on and be able to needle the O’Malley administration — because, again, Martin O’Malley was certainly a rising star in the Democratic Party. I know that a lot of people point to 2016 and his inability to really make any traction in the Democratic primary, but in Maryland he for the better part of a decade was a rockstar. He was the main event.
Geoff Kabaservice: He had been the mayor of Baltimore before he became governor.
Mileah Kromer: He was mayor of Baltimore, he was a young mayor of Baltimore. He introduced things like City Stat and he was looked at as somebody who was on the vanguard of reform for the city. And he’s a really charismatic guy too. So Hogan had found a way to finally needle the guy through Change Maryland. And where it becomes interesting is in the larger picture of Republican Party politics nationally at that time. 2011 is right after that big 2010 Tea Party year, and that’s when you see a lot of Republicans start to double down on some of the nativist language. The Tea Party claimed to be for the most part about tax issues, but a lot of research since then has really shown that that is not actually what a lot of the messaging was about.
Hogan was explicit in this… When I interviewed him for the book, I asked him, “So where does Change Maryland fit in with the Tea Party?” He was like, “It doesn’t. It does not fit in. We just weren’t anything like that. I was interested in building a tent — I was interested in building a big tent. I was not interested in firing up the base. I was interested in reaching a diverse set of voters with an economic message that Marylanders have paid way too much in taxes and we needed to rein in the spending — and really just a fiscally conservative message but done in a way that was broadly appealing.” And that becomes his bread and butter. That is the messaging that helped him win in 2014, and it helped him win again in 2018, because people can rally behind that. People rally behind the idea of smaller government, reduced taxes and regulations. They like that. I think Americans and Marylanders… I mean, this is a largely center-right country in terms of a lot of fiscal policies.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you quoted Hogan at one point as saying, “The Republican Party should be unabashedly pro-business.”
Mileah Kromer: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: And to me, Change Maryland and his subsequent approach to governing really is rooted more in the traditional conception of the Republican Party as a pro-business party. And, yes, lowering taxes from what is perceived to be an excessive level is part of that. But the business community actually requires a lot of other things that aren’t all about small government, so to speak. Generally speaking, they tend to support infrastructure improvements, better schools, a lot of things of that sort.
Mileah Kromer: So that is probably the biggest criticism of the Hogan years, particularly from Democrats. Maryland, the Baltimore region, was ready for the Red Line. They went through a bunch of bidding processes. They had received a guarantee of a large sum of federal money to start to build this project, this East-to-West rail line in Baltimore. Hogan nixes it within the first year of office. It is something that he’s still criticized for to this day, and how you view it really depends I think on whether you are somebody who is a proponent of public transportation or if you’re somebody who wants to see more investment in roads and highways. And Hogan has invested in roads and highways. He’s always been a roads-and-highways governor. And so, you’re right, we talk about part of the “open for business mantra” that he really tried to lean into was about building up — not so much with the urban center of Baltimore with public transportation, but more so with trying to reinvest and reallocate that money to bolster other parts of the state.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think it’s worth pointing out that one of Hogan’s early allies, as he was running for governor for the first time in 2014, was Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, who I think at that time was also head of the Republican Governors Association. And Chris Christie likewise had vetoed a big tunnel project in the belief that tunnel projects are what Hogan called “boondoggles.” They’re just too expensive for what they get you. And they could look to the example of the Big Dig in Boston as a project that just went billions of dollars over its initial cost estimates.
Mileah Kromer: And that is what Hogan will tell you if you ask him about the Red Line. That is exactly what he’ll say. And I want to say this… The folks that I talked to as well for the book… A journalist who had covered it quite extensively, a key criticism of Hogan he does level is that the Governor really never followed up with a solid enough explanation of why he thought it was going to be a “wasteful boondoggle,” why the tunnel was going to be so problematic, why the plans as is would be expected to run so far outside of the budget.
But, again, if you are a Marylander and you were sitting in Howard County, if you were sitting in the western part of the state or on the Eastern Shore, you were going to see a reinvestment in some of the highway systems. And, again, if you are commuting every day and you are not interested in taking public transportation, that has always been the dividing line. If you ask folks on a poll whether you want to invest in roads and highways or more money for public transportation, it’s always the question about how you commute to work that is really what determines how you’re going to answer that question. And that being said, he also, with the Purple Line that goes into Washington, D.C., he did greenlight that. He campaigned against it, but he ended up greenlighting it. And it’s still in process right now being built, although there are some delays.
Geoff Kabaservice: So a large part of Hogan’s campaign during 2014 was that O’Malley had levied forty different taxes or fees in the years after the great recession, of which the most famous was the so-called “rain tax.”
Mileah Kromer: The Stormwater Remediation Fee got a really great glow-up in being called the “rain tax.” It was a fee that really was levied on any impervious surfaces. So if you were a business or you had a big driveway, you had to pay a fee for all that stormwater runoff because, I mean, it was polluting the Chesapeake Bay. So all the concrete and asphalt and all that stuff, when rain hits it and it runs over it, it does eventually get down into the watershed and eventually gets out to the Bay, and it’s a problem for the environment. Environmentalists have been talking about it for years. By itself it would’ve never caught fire, by itself. The problem was, the other part of Hogan’s messaging was, “They never met a tax they didn’t like or one they didn’t hike,” and they documented the forty tax hikes.
And so the “rain tax” sounds really ridiculous in the context of the other forty. So by itself, it’s one thing, but the “rain tax” was a really easy moniker for people to remember. Plus the other forty tax hikes and those types of things, it becomes like this messaging magic that Anthony Brown’s campaign, Anthony Brown and the Democrats in 2014, just never took it seriously enough. And this is probably where I differ from a lot of my Democratic friends, is that I also think that they spent way too much time pointing at everything that Anthony Brown did wrong and not accepting all the things that Larry Hogan did right.
Geoff Kabaservice: What were some of those things that Hogan did right, in your view?
Mileah Kromer: Focusing on these economic issues, like a laser on the economic issues, and not allowing himself to be knocked off-message by social issues that lose Democratic votes. There were two instances where the Brown campaign tried to make social issues a forefront of that campaign: one was on abortion rights and the second was on guns. The issue with abortion rights is that they found Larry Hogan’s statements… They were 20-something years old. Abortion at that point in time — I know that things are a little bit different now with the overturning of Roe v. Wade — but it’s settled law in Maryland. And so things weren’t going to change if Hogan was elected. He was not going to change abortion laws, and he was really clear about that. They forced him to talk about it and his response always was, “I’m not going to change abortion laws in the state. You don’t want to talk about economic issues though.” So it was always, “I won’t do it,” and then economic issues.
The same thing with guns. Hogan was against O’Malley’s large package of gun reform (or gun control) legislation that he pushed through. Hogan was on record as being against it. But, again, the same line, “I’m not going to do anything to really try to change gun laws in the state, but my opponent won’t talk about economic issues.” And I think the disciplined messaging over and over and over again, and his refusal to have a debate about guns, to have a debate about reproductive rights, and to change the context of the debate back to economic issues was incredibly effective in 2014. And he used that same line all the way to 2018 as well.
Geoff Kabaservice: I suppose with the benefit of hindsight it’s worth asking why, with his refusal to engage in culture-war issues, with his relative moderation on these other issues of abortion and guns, he got through the Republican primary in the first place.
Mileah Kromer: I will say this: The Republican Party in Maryland does not have a deep bench of talent. He was easily the most talented politician of that group in 2014 that ran. He was also the best-funded of that group. So Change Maryland quickly turned — and I think this is the interesting story of Change Maryland… The evolution of it was, it starts with this Facebook group that puts out these anti-O’Malley, anti-tax messages. Pretty soon it starts to carry the authority line for Hogan for Governor, and he builds up this reach. He’s able to use Change Maryland as a platform. Nobody wants to hear from the guy from Hogan Companies. Nobody cares what that guy says. People do want to hear what a tax advocacy group has to say about the tax policies of the O’Malley administration. And so he became somebody who was on WBAL, he had a couple Fox Business hits, he wrote some op-eds. So he became very quickly… He used that platform to become the front-runner. And when anybody questioned whether he was a front-runner, he just was like, “I’m not going to engage with the rest of my Republican opponents. I’m the only one who can beat the Democrat. Don’t you guys want to get rid of the second term of O’Malley?” That was the kind of message.
Geoff Kabaservice: And that was one that Republicans, at least at that time, were receptive to.
Mileah Kromer: That’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: So Hogan wins this big upset. And then in fairly quick succession, two big events. First of all, the Freddie Gray riots in Baltimore that you referred to in April of 2015, which Hogan seems to handle effectively.
Mileah Kromer: He does. And when I say that, I think that it’s important to note that it’s not just Hogan. He takes a lot of credit for it. And I think that as any governor would, he takes a great deal of credit. I think a larger part of the story of the Baltimore uprising is how immediately community leaders and organizers came through when the violence started. They were the ones who were the initial first line calming the streets, really isolating the violence that happened to just that first night. I think anybody outside of Maryland or outside of Baltimore City’s media market, all you guys saw was the burning of the CVS on one loop over and over and over again. It wasn’t as if the whole city was on fire.
It was the largest riots that we’ve had since the 1960s — I’m not diminishing the issue. But what I’m saying is that it’s not as if he sent the National Guard in and they stomped down the folks rioting. What Hogan did is he carefully deployed the National Guard in a way that maintained peace. And I think to his credit, and as well as to the credit of the folks that he had put in charge, the National Guard was restrained in Baltimore, and there were no other big instances of violence that further escalated the situation. I think as a governor, during your first few months of the election, that’s a big inflection point for you. A mistake could have very easily been made. He could have been too heavy-handed. And there was of course the dynamic of he’s a white Republican governor trying to send troops into a majority-Black city.
Geoff Kabaservice: What I’m struck by actually, though, is the historical context. Because after all, one of the other Republican governors of Maryland was Spiro Agnew.
Mileah Kromer: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: And in 1968, there was a riot in Baltimore in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and Spiro Agnew called together about a hundred mostly Black community leaders who had been doing the same kind of job of trying to isolate and quell the looting and the rioting. And Spiro Agnew saw this as an opportunity to raise his national profile as a populist by dressing down these community leaders and claiming that they were siding with the rioters, and that they were against the police, and that they ran from law and order. And it was disgraceful, but it worked. That was what got him named Richard Nixon’s vice president. Whereas Hogan, in the same situation, understands that these are the people who are keeping the peace. He holds his tongue, at the very least, and helps out where he can.
Mileah Kromer: Yes. They took very, very different approaches. Hogan did take the time to meet with a lot of community leaders during this time. And I talk a lot in the book about the message discipline that becomes the hallmark of Hogan’s communication style. It shows up almost immediately during the Baltimore uprising in the things he says about Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, although he’s unkind in his book — he’s a little bit harsher in his own recounting, Still Standing. That’s his autobiography. He’s not as judicious as he was in the moment. And there were some tense moments between him and former mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake during that time. For the most part, he presented a really cautious: “We want to calm the streets. We want to make sure everybody’s safe. We want to stop the violence. We want to stop the destruction.”
And there wasn’t a lot of finger-pointing. There was a lot of, “The task at hand is let’s make sure this ends. We need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The violence needs to stop now.” And he is just very careful. And I think that he’s cognizant of the optics in some ways. He’s a white Republican governor, this is a majority-Black city, and you’re sending in the National Guard. And I would say that the good thing is that things, they didn’t get out of hand. Again, the National Guard, Major General Linda Singh did an excellent job. I spoke to Reverend Alvin Hathaway for my book; he’s a big player in Baltimore City as a faith leader, as a community leader. He’s really well respected. That was his take, that Major General Singh led the National Guard in a way that was there as a really restrained force, but a force that helped maintain the peace.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you do refer to Hogan’s not just acquaintanceships but actual working relationships and friendships with community figures like Arthur “Squeaky” Kirk in West Baltimore. And it’s interesting, Washington D.C. has some similarities to Baltimore. I live in a historically Black neighborhood, although it’s now gentrifying to some extent. But every block will have the block “mayor,” an established figure who’s been there a long time, who knows who everyone is, who has a lot of respect from the community. And I live right across from the “mayor” of my block. And every block in Baltimore generally has one, too. But the Democratic establishment in Baltimore is increasingly losing touch with those figures. And weirdly, it seemed like Hogan did a better job of connecting with a lot of the local leadership than the Democratic Party did in that era.
Mileah Kromer: Perhaps. I would say this, and I don’t want to discount a lot of the Democratic elected officials who during that time were really a visible presence. So when I say there were community leaders, but a lot of the Black elected officials during the Baltimore uprising were there meeting with people, and they were there the next day to help clean up. I don’t want to take anything away from them. But I will say that Hogan — again, the careful messaging, and deploying the National Guard, I think, was a necessary step, and a step that was basically lauded by most people. There were some detractors who really resented him sending a militarized force into a city that’s been plagued by police brutality. But I think in general, it does speak that Hogan did… Unlike Agnew, he wasn’t there to antagonize people, particularly community leaders. And he spent a lot of time, for the ten days following the most violent part of the uprising, he spent some time walking through Baltimore City talking to community leaders, talking to everyday residents. I think you can cynically look at that as just playing politics, and that’s certainly one interpretation of it. But for everyday voters who live in the city, to see their governor actually coming in and engaging in their communities, people do remember that kind of thing.
Geoff Kabaservice: One of the things that also benefited Hogan in a weird way in his first term was the fact that he was diagnosed with cancer. His very visible struggle with chemotherapy humanized him on some level.
Mileah Kromer: I think so. But I try to argue in the book that a lot of people — and I still hear this now, and it’s one of these things that drives me crazy — that he’s only popular because of the cancer. I’ve heard that from so many people. And I think that it did humanize him. And I think that his handling of the cancer was something that a lot of folks could relate to, like the rest of us who have to make a living, who have to go to work. And I know a lot of people who are going through rounds of chemotherapy and they have to go to work the next day; they use their sick days and have to go in. So that’s what people saw Hogan do. They saw him very sick — he lost all of his hair, physically weathered from it — but he was still present and doing the job, and not hiding behind spokespeople, and actually engaging.
So people really appreciated that about him. But it is incorrect, and I would argue that it is incorrect to say that that was anything more than maybe a temporary boost in his name recognition. People forget. And people have sympathy for you to an extent, but then they move on to what’s going on in their lives. I think certainly the cancer probably bumped up his name recognition and gave some sympathy, and initially certainly helped humanize him. He mentioned that he was a cancer survivor in some of his 2018 ads, I think to remind people. It helped humanize him to people. I’m not saying that’s not something that’s happening. I’m saying that it’s not just the cancer, it’s just that’s not the case. There’s many other things I think that factor into Hogan’s success with the public.
Geoff Kabaservice: But you do devote a lot of space in your book to Hogan’s relationship particularly with Black voters. Because as you say, it’s extremely unusual to get the kind of support from Black voters that Hogan received. Particularly, I think in his 2018 election, you point out that he got 28% as a Republican candidate, whereas nationally Republican governors got 12% from Black voters and Republican senatorial candidates only got 7%. And of course, the Republican Party’s long and troubled history with Black voters goes all the way back to 1964, when the party’s nominee was Barry Goldwater, who voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So what accounted, in your view, for Hogan’s surprising success among Black voters, for a Republican?
Mileah Kromer: Well, listen, I think first and foremost, the focus on economic issues. Black Marylanders, just like all other Marylanders, really do care about pocketbook issues at the end of the day. They’re not as progressive… Black voters are not as progressive as their white Democratic counterparts. And we’ve asked this on our poll a bunch of times. A large percentage of Black voters in Maryland, as well as nationwide, are moderates. And so I think that there’s some ideological cohesion between Hogan and perhaps somebody like Ben Jealous, who is African American, but staunchly progressive.
I think that a lot of Black voters really did not like Donald Trump; when we look at our polling, Black voters typically were the ones who gave him the lowest approval ratings. And they saw Hogan as a figure of a Republican who was pushing back against Donald Trump, and they liked it, and they rewarded him for it. They viewed Hogan as a moderate. So if you ask voters if you thought Hogan was a moderate, a liberal, or a conservative, a lot of Black voters viewed Hogan as a moderate and viewed themselves as a moderate. So there was that kind of ideological cohesion. And also, Larry Hogan had a really great lieutenant governor in Boyd Rutherford. He’s an African American, a man who served in both George W. Bush’s administration as well as with former Governor Ehrlich. He is, I think, an understated and important figure in the Hogan years.
Geoff Kabaservice: Just to speak to the question of Black moderation, I was interested that you ran a poll in September 2018 in which you found that 63% of Black Marylanders thought their taxes were too high, versus only 51% of whites. And Blacks were actually less likely than white voters to say that they trusted government to spend their tax dollars wisely.
Mileah Kromer: Right. There was a huge anti-tax sentiment among Black voters in Maryland. One of the people I interviewed was former Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker. And again, as you know, Prince George’s County is one of the most affluent majority-Black counties in the entire country. And I asked him about that, and I asked him, “What about Hogan’s message resonated?” And Rushern was really clear when I talked to him. The former county executive said that “Black voters in Prince George’s County are concerned that you’re going to raise their property taxes.” They are concerned about it all the time. They are interested in all these other issues: they want to see education improved, they want to see public safety improve their communities, they want to see better city services. They want all these things. But they are concerned at the core for their property taxes being hiked.
And so somebody like Hogan, who comes across as a moderate, is coming to them with a message like, “I’m not going to raise your taxes.” And after four years of not raising their taxes, they like that message. Ben Jealous was never able to explain to voters how his progressive policies were going to translate into how to actually pay for them, and Hogan’s campaign needled them excessively on that issue — like, “Too extreme for Maryland. Hey, Big Spender! Reckless spending” — over and over and over again. And people heard that. Black voters heard that and they rewarded Hogan for it. But you can’t underestimate the role that Boyd Rutherford played.
Geoff Kabaservice: This is true. At the same time, it is remarkable that a Republican candidate can defeat a former president of the NAACP with almost a third of the Black vote. And I mentioned that Hogan in person, when I met him, was very serious, professional, reserved. But I also saw him at some kind of campaign event at Camden Yards where he was in a largely Black crowd. There was a lot of beer in the air. And he’s this sweaty fireplug of a guy just pressing the flesh in a really physical, intimate way with a largely Black crowd. And it was hard to picture a lot of other Republican politicians going into that crowd with that kind of gusto. And I think that conveyed an authenticity that might have appealed to a Black audience.
Mileah Kromer: Yeah. One of the other Black elected officials I interviewed, and this was somebody who was certainly not ideologically aligned with Hogan — she was a big Jealous supporter — this is state Senator Jill Carter. She’s an institution in Baltimore City, she comes from a long line of civil rights leaders. Jill Carter basically said that Larry Hogan had the ability to not come off as uncomfortable among Black people, around Black people. And a lot of white politicians that she knows cannot do that; you could just tell there’s a level of discomfort. And that Hogan “had the ability to come off like he was some regular guy who made $50,000 a year.” That was her quote. I thought it was really smart and funny, but it’s true. Hogan’s a millionaire. He talks about a small business, but I guess small business in is in the eye of the beholder. Hogan Companies is not a small business.
Geoff Kabaservice: They’ve done $2 billion worth of business.
Mileah Kromer: Yeah. I would not call it a small business. I would call the dry cleaner at the end of my block a small business. But it’s in the eye of the holder. But I guess in comparison to Amazon, it is a small business. I think that’s a really good point that Jill Carter brought up, and you saw firsthand, is that there is a retail politics acumen that Hogan has. And that helped him tremendously, and his campaign. And when I interviewed a lot of the folks from the campaign, they basically had the opinion that we were not going to just campaign in areas where Republicans “typically” would have a chance of winning — the whiter parts of Baltimore County, the whiter parts of Howard County — that they were going to chip into Jealous’ margins everywhere they could. They were going to chip in… They knew they weren’t going to win Prince George’s, but they were going to chip in, and they were going to do the same thing in Baltimore City. And that strategy, once you start to piece it together, that’s how you shake out a double-digit victory. You get it by not just winning white Democrats, you get it by winning 28% of the African-American vote in the state.
Geoff Kabaservice: So toward the end of your book, you do sort of take the formula for building a Hogan coalition if you are a Republican. How do you actually win a majoritarian victory in a diversifying America? You point out a number of factors. At the state level, you stick to your pocketbook issues, you avoid culture wars. You come across as an independent voice willing to buck your party and to work with the opposition, at least on select issues. You have your core principles, but you’re flexible on policy solutions. You’re guided by your average voter, not the fringe. And you try to persuade all voters of your fitness to be their governor. You campaign in every community. You don’t leave anybody out because they’re unlikely to vote for you. And then you also surround yourself with professionals as opposed to ideological Kool-Aid drinkers.
Mileah Kromer: I think that’s right. And listen, I think maybe that’s a part of the book that I wish I would’ve had time or I wish I would’ve leaned into more, is talking more about the staffers that surrounded Hogan. Because I think that they’re such a huge part of the story. Hogan is only as good as the staff that has surrounded him. He is a pugnacious guy by nature. He is somebody I think that has a natural inclination who would like to hit back, who would like to get into a little bit of a political back-and-forth. But his staff has helped him maintain that message discipline that has allowed him to look like the grownup in the room, especially as a contrast to Donald Trump.
Geoff Kabaservice: You also mentioned that Hogan actually is very prickly with the press. And yet he and the people around him don’t do the stupid thing, which would be to freeze out the press or ban a particular reporter from any kind of interactions.
Mileah Kromer: So that was one of the biggest moments of the Erlich administration when you knew things weren’t going to go well, is he ends up banning two Baltimore Sun reporters for what he deemed to be unfavorable coverage. Now again, I think that some Republicans would argue that it was unfavorable coverage, that it was sort of hack journalism and all that. It doesn’t matter. The Baltimore Sun was the biggest player at that time. The Sun and the Post had the largest statehouse press corps at the time. And you can’t ban the Baltimore Sun from covering your administration. You just can’t do it. And it made Erlich look petty to the Democratic voters whom he would’ve had to win in order to win a second term.
Hogan’s prickly with the press. He can be back-slappy and gregarious and friendly, but he also can decide that he’s not going to go on the show; he’s going to go onto a more friendly radio program. So it’s not as if he’s… Josh Kurtz, the founding editor of Maryland Matters — it’s a fantastic website, a really wonky, insidery take on Maryland politics — he says that Hogan is not at all like Mr. Open to the press, and he is not. But I think that his communications team are effective and good at what they do. They’re well prepared and they make sure the Governor is well prepared. There have been very few times where there’s been a communications mistake that comes out of the Governor’s Office. So a professionally-run communications organization, I would say, was one of the big reasons that Hogan was able to be successful with the public.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let me put this to you in a somewhat complicated analogy… I think it sounds easy enough to say what the Hogan formula for success is, but it’s very difficult for either political party to follow it. You don’t, of course, given the nature of publication and the timing schedule, follow through to the 2022 elections in your book, because they took place after you finished turning in the manuscript. But what happened was that Larry Hogan knew that the only way a Republican was going to win, following him, was to nominate a moderate who would follow his playbook. So he pushed for Kelly Schultz to be the Republican Party nominee, who is one of his protegeés and very much a moderate in his mold.
Instead, the Republican electorate nominated Dan Cox, who had the Trump stamp of approval. He’s a state delegate who is a complete MAGA-head; I think Larry Hogan actually called him “a QAnon whack job.” And he made no attempt to do any part of the Hogan thing. He demonized the press. He wouldn’t reach out to communities outside of the right-wing bubble. And he lost in a huge landslide to Wes Moore, who therefore becomes the first Black governor in Maryland history.
Yet curiously, this same pattern was described in your book, except it was the Democrats. Because they nominated a progressive — not a moderate, but a progressive — in Ben Jealous, who flew off the handle and dropped an F-bomb on a reporter famously, who didn’t think there was any need to actually tack toward the middle (and in fact explicitly rejected that stance), and who said, “Yeah, go ahead, call me a socialist.” And they lost — because, again, they couldn’t play towards the middle. So although on the surface it seems like the Hogan prescription might be intuitive and even obvious in practice, it’s very hard for parties which are so much in the thrall of their bases and their extremes to follow it.
Mileah Kromer: I think that’s true. My only sort of pushback with your analysis there is that I would never compare Ben Jealous to Dan Cox.
Geoff Kabaservice: Fair enough.
Mileah Kromer: I do not think that… And I’m following the point you’re making, but I think… Just to be clear, Dan Cox was a first-term delegate from Frederick County, and one of the reasons that he won — and perhaps the only reason he was able to win that primary in 2022 — was he earned the Trump endorsement. And he earned Trump’s attention by being part of the “Trump lawyers” who were defending the Big Lie in 2020. That’s how he got on Trump’s radar. So I have some criticism, certainly, I think in terms of Ben Jealous’ read of the Maryland electorate. But I think Ben Jealous was just… He was just a progressive in a moderate’s world in Maryland. I think that’s how I would describe it. Dan Cox, on the other hand, frankly held some policy positions, or just general positions, that were just not factually based.
Geoff Kabaservice: And it’s interesting that the Massachusetts Republican Party chose to go the same direction by nominating a MAGA candidate to succeed Charlie Baker, and then losing big-time to the Democrats and giving up the state.
Mileah Kromer: To me, I think looking at it just from an outsider’s perspective or somebody who has studied Maryland politics now for the better part of ten years, it is wild to me that they had a Republican governor who sustained like 65-to-70 percent approval rating, and then Republicans washed their hands of it. And instead of voting for his pick as nominee, they decided to go with somebody who was… For me, from what I knew about the Maryland electorate, I saw the writing on the wall immediately the second Dan Cox got nominated. For me, it was always a question of how much instead of whether — so how much was he going to lose by versus whether he was going to lose.
And Wes Moore… I mean, the number ticks up every single day as more and more mail-in ballots have been counted in the state. And Wes Moore was a Democrat who made sure that those Hogan voters, those Hogan Democrats and Hogan independents, they came right home gladly to Wes Moore. And again, I think part of that has to do with Dan Cox and his extremism. The other thing is because Wes Moore has broad ideological appeal. Moderates liked him, progressives liked him. He earned the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, the FOP, at the same time he earned the endorsement from many labor and environmental organizations. So this is someone with really broad appeal.
Geoff Kabaservice: I highly recommend his autobiography, The Other Wes Moore, which is very much of a Baltimore story as well. As a final question then, Mileah, what kind of a future does Larry Hogan have in the Republican Party, in Republican politics more generally?
Mileah Kromer: So this is where the good folks of the Niskanen Center came in big time for me. I really didn’t know that many people personally enough to call them up and ask them any questions about the future of the Republican Party. And, thankfully, your Rolodex really helped me out. And I was able to talk to a bunch of very smart people, a lot of whom write for The Bulwark, which is a center-right, sort of anti-Trump publication.
Geoff Kabaservice: I saw that you talked to Sarah Longwell, Tim Miller…
Mileah Kromer: Yeah, Amanda Carpenter, and Tim Carney from the Washington Examiner as well as Matt Lewis. So I talked to a diverse set of voices that I think had a chance of not just dismissing Hogan outright. I think if I would’ve talked to folks in MAGA world, those types of Republicans, it wouldn’t have been much of a conversation. It would’ve been, “Larry Hogan has no future. The End.” So I wanted to at least talk to some folks who would think about or consider it. And the idea that really everybody landed on was that he has a primary problem. This would work in the general, this type of Republican probably could win handily against the right Democrat in a general election. But everybody was like, “I just don’t think he can make it through the primary.”
Sarah Longwell talked about some of the really great focus group work she was doing and where Republican voters are at. Tim Miller — and I thought this was really sort of smart; he’s somebody who knows how to do opposition research — talked about how the first thing they’re going to say about Hogan is he’s not a team player, and it would make his job so easy as somebody who formerly used to do opposition research. Jim Swift from the Bulwark made a really good point that some of the conservative media, if Hogan would make some gains in those early states — if all of a sudden the Iowa fair circuit was really kind to the governor, who was great at backslapping his way through a county fair — that Fox News and some of the more conservative publications would come out after him and either suffocate his campaign with no coverage at all, or perhaps even some negative stories about him.
And Matt Lewis, I thought was an interesting… He made this really interesting comparison. It’s probably one of my favorite quotes. He said he would “buy low” on Hogan. I don’t think he was bullish on him by any stretch of the imagination, but he would buy low. Because he’s also, I think, seen Hogan on the campaign trail and seen him in person, and he thinks that some of that authenticity that voters see might translate well in the more retail politics-centered world of those early primary and caucus states. But still buying low.
Geoff Kabaservice: One of the conclusions of the “autopsy report” was that the party needed to separate itself or even suppress the power of fringe right-wing candidates, and even movements like the Tea Party. But Sarah Longwell and Tim and a lot of other people at the Bulwark have been pretty open about the fact that the only way to actually get the Republican Party to do that would be through repeated defeats. And yet after 2022, we’ve now seen MAGA defeated in three straight election cycles. So it’s not impossible to think that there could be more appeal of a somewhat more traditional, business-oriented, big-tent, pragmatic Republican approach.
Mileah Kromer: I think that Hogan will certainly… He loves the electability argument. He made it in 2014 that he was the most electable Republican, he actually can beat Anthony Brown. And he will make that argument again if he decides to throw his hat in the ring to run for president. Listen, every governor and senator looks in the mirror and sees a future president. So I don’t think that Hogan is dissimilar from a lot of other ambitious politicians. I think that he’s unique in at least that he is one of the only high-profile Republicans who, if Trumpism completely implodes, he is somebody who’s not touched by it at all. He has stayed away, and that makes him unique.
But again, Maryland’s also a very small state. Hogan’s media-friendly, but you have to take a… You have to have a running start, I think, to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire. And I think he’s certainly putting in those moves. But I wouldn’t discount it. It’s a tough journey to get national name recognition, and I think anybody who is big in their state probably could tell you how easy it is to try and fail.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Mileah Kromer, thank you so much for joining me today, and congratulations on your new book…
Mileah Kromer: Oh, thank you so much.
Geoff Kabaservice: Blue-State Republican: How Larry Hogan Won Where Republicans Lose and Lessons for a Future GOP. Thanks again, Mileah.
Mileah Kromer: Thank you.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to The Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. If you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC.
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