ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Larry Hogan made history in Maryland last fall. It had been 64 years since a Republican had won a second term as governor. Hogan did it with a record-setting number of votes.
Now Hogan, who has made clear his distaste for President Donald Trump’s angry brand of right-wing politics, is putting himself out there as a possible candidate for president.
There was his inaugural speech outside the State House here Wednesday. Jeb Bush, passing the baton from one Trump-resistant Republican to another, introduced Hogan, whose remarks served as a repudiation of the Trump era. There was his gala that evening at the MGM National Harbor hotel, where he danced to the Beach Boys with a purple surfboard — a nod to how he outran last year’s blue wave in one of the nation’s most Democratic states. There was his answer the next day, when a Baltimore reporter asked him point blank if he wanted to run for president: “I’m not ready to make any announcements today, let’s put it that way.”
Hogan, 62, lacks the name recognition of Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and on-again, off-again Trump critic. And he’s not yet a self-promotional candidate-in-waiting like former Ohio governor–turned–CNN commentator John Kasich.
But it’s time to start paying attention to him. Trump is more vulnerable than a typical incumbent, between his overall low popularity and a special counsel investigation digging into allegations of potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. And Hogan is eager to leap onto the national stage. In interviews with BuzzFeed News, Hogan shared for the first time specifics about how he might do so. Most significantly, he is planning a trip to Iowa in early March.
Officially, Hogan will visit the home of the first presidential caucuses in his leadership role with the National Governors Association. In his office Thursday, though, a mischievous grin crept across his face when he said he’ll likely take political meetings while there.
“I’m sure we’ll get around and see a few folks and stop in and say hello to a couple of people while we’re there,” he said.
Hogan also expressed interest in New Hampshire, the first primary state, where Saint Anselm College’s Politics & Eggs speakers series is a rite of passage for White House contenders. “If I get the opportunity to go do Politics & Eggs,” he said, “I’ll probably accept that invitation.”
Polls consistently place Hogan as one of the nation’s two most popular governors, behind Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker, another moderate Republican who stirs White House speculation but has said he won’t run in 2020.
Signs of Hogan’s national ambitions appeared soon after his 13-point reelection victory last fall. A few weeks later, he was among the few promising stars at a meeting of Republican governors in Scottsdale, Arizona. Hogan ran late to an interview at a hotel bar, stopping by his room first to change out of a dark suit and into a more casual plaid blazer and jeans. He arrived, conveniently, a tick past 5 o’clock and rejected an aide’s offer to order him a Diet Coke.
“Maybe I’ll have something better than that,” Hogan replied before asking for a Crown and Diet.
For the next half hour, Hogan spoke openly of his plans to cultivate a higher profile.
“I was very focused in the first four years on never talking to national media, focusing completely on Maryland,” he said. “Still, my focus is going to be on Maryland and doing a good job in my second term, but I’m not going to turn down every interview. I turned down every Sunday morning talk show, every cable show, for four years. And now if somebody calls, we might sit down and talk with them.”
He also pointedly kept the door open to a 2020 run: “I have no idea what the landscape is going to be like two years from now or six years from now. I’m going to stay involved in the discussion, and I certainly think I have something to contribute to the national debate.”
Trump’s reelection campaign is working closely with the Republican National Committee to squelch any significant effort to primary him. “Any potential challenger should understand that the Trump campaign is better organized than any campaign in history, especially with the support of the Republican Party, which is firmly behind this president,” Trump political director Chris Carr said in a Thursday statement the campaign offered for this story. (The response was nearly identical to one given to Politico, which reported this week on several Hogan moves.)
Even so, Hogan’s frequent criticism has put him on the radar of the president’s allies.
“My friends at the White House remind me of that,” Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who has informally advised Trump and is one of Hogan’s biggest champions, told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “They call him my friend Larry Hogan.”
Hogan has been in touch with Bill Kristol, the conservative commentator who’s trying to draft a Trump primary challenger. But his thinking right now seems guided not so much by whether he could or should take on a sitting president, but by how he can help lead a post-Trump Republican Party.
He believes the party will revert back to where it was pre-Trump — to a more mainline and pragmatic conservatism, where centrist Republicans like him can thrive.
“Obviously,” Hogan said, “Trump is not going to be around forever.”
That future could come sooner rather than later. With Democrats now controlling the House, and with the special counsel investigation, there is an ever-increasing prospect of impeachment. It’s a prospect Hogan underscores with a handy tibdit: His late father, Larry Sr., was the first Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to call for Richard Nixon’s impeachment during Watergate.
Hogan shared the anecdote at his first inauguration in 2015, months before Trump launched his presidential campaign, to illustrate his bipartisan values. He used it again in this week’s speech, with newfound relevance that only ratcheted up the 2020 speculation.
“The decision cost him dearly,” Hogan said of his father, who died in 2017. “He lost friends and supporters and his party’s nomination for governor that year. But it earned him something more valuable: a quiet conscience and an honored place in history.”
For years Hogan shuffled back and forth between his father’s life of politics and his own interests in business, eventually becoming successful in real estate. “I think he was primarily interested in business and saw politics as a side job,” said Tim Maloney, a Democrat and former state lawmaker who has been friends with Hogan since they were teenagers and remembers him once dreaming of opening a McDonald’s in Ocean City.
Hogan was a top aide to Larry Sr. when he served as Prince George’s County executive, and he failed in two congressional races of his own. He ran relatively strong against Democrat Steny Hoyer in 1992, in a race where Hogan distanced himself a bit from one of his political idols, then-president George H.W. Bush. Those who remember him from those early days recall sharp elbows and textbook conservatism.
“Somewhere along the line he changed,” former Maryland governor Parris Glendening — a Democrat who as a county council member in the 1980s had a rivalry with the elder Hogan — told BuzzFeed News. “The key to understanding him is, did he change by maturing and seeing how the world works, or by a series of calculated political decisions?”
Hogan ended years of bachelorhood in 2004 when he married Yumi, an abstract landscape painter he met at an art show. He considers her three adult daughters from a previous marriage his own. “Apparently prior to them dating, he didn’t eat spicy food,” said Jaymi Sterling, their middle daughter, when recalling the first time she met Hogan, at a family dinner where her mother had prepared one of her daughters’ favorite spicy Korean dishes. “I just remember him sweating. But he ate everything. He was such a trooper.”
The aughts also saw Hogan try new things politically, first as an appointments secretary under then-governor Robert Ehrlich, and later with his own gubernatorial flirtations for 2010. His eventual 2014 campaign for governor began as a longshot. Then–lieutenant governor Anthony Brown was favored to succeed Democrat Martin O’Malley. When Hogan told his old pal Maloney that he was running, “I started laughing at him,” Maloney recalled.
Christie, then heading the Republican Governors Association and in charge of directing resources to winnable races, was one of the few who believed in Hogan. “I walked away from my first meeting with him and told Phil Cox, the executive director of the RGA at the time, ‘This guy’s going places,’” Christie said. “Phil thought I was nuts: ‘Governor, we have 36 races. We don’t have the money to get into this race.’”
Eventually, Christie tapped a line of credit for a last-minute Maryland investment. Hogan recalled Christie needing one other Republican governor to sign off and turning to, of all people, Indiana’s Mike Pence, Trump’s future vice president.
The first year of Hogan’s first term quickly was consumed with events that would define him: the Baltimore riots and a cancer diagnosis. His response to the racial unrest following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody earned him admiration among city Democrats and established him as a leader capable of navigating a crisis. His battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma established him as a sympathetic fighter, robbing him of his thick white hair. Hogan had been the well-coiffed businessman; now he looks more like a well-tailored pro wrestler. (He declared himself “100% cancer-free” during Thursday’s interview in his State House office, where a framed guitar, signed by country musician Tim McGraw as Hogan was undergoing his cancer treatment, hulks over everything else on the wall.)
Hogan also demonstrated savvy in navigating Democratic supermajorities. Sometimes that meant small-ball moves with populist appeal, like when he bypassed lawmakers to lower tolls. Other times it meant seeing the veto-proof writing on the wall and latching onto a Democratic bill — his support of fracking bans, for example — and occasionally acting like it was his idea all along. Often it meant nurturing strategic relationships with Democrats.
“He has governed as a nonpartisan,” said Bobby Zirkin, a Democratic state senator who sponsored the fracking bill. “You’re never going to agree with someone all of the time, but I’ve come to genuinely enjoy him.”
All of this made Hogan very tough to beat in 2018. Democrats were confident they could turn the poisonous political climate against Hogan and at times tried to brand him as “Trump for Maryland,” or at least as someone who didn’t stand up to Trump enough. The strategy failed, largely because the governor wasn’t shy about airing his grievances. Hogan wrote in his father for president in 2016 and has criticized Trump on everything from his relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to his separation of families at the Mexican border. Also voters — even Democrats — had decided they liked Hogan.
“Hogan’s as far from Trump as you can possibly get,” said Peter Franchot, the state’s elected comptroller, and a Democratic ally who declined to endorse Ben Jealous, his party’s gubernatorial nominee last year. (He didn’t endorse Hogan, either, but the implication was clear.)
Franchot and other Democrats grumbled to BuzzFeed News about the “Trump for Maryland” attacks. “Love him or hate him,” Glendening said, “Hogan is not a Trump miniature.”
“No one thinks he’s Trump,” countered one Democratic strategist who was aligned with the Jealous campaign. “But he’s more conservative than he’s communicated.”
Hogan has shown no signs of moving to the political right in his second term — another seed of doubt that Democrats tried to plant with Maryland voters last year. “Why would I change?” he wondered in Arizona. “It seems to be working.”
In his introductory remarks at this week’s inauguration, Jeb Bush placed Hogan “at the top of the list of leaders that [he] admire[s] today, because what’s happening here in Annapolis is the antithesis of what’s happening in Washington, DC.” Hogan used his speech to pay tribute to Bush’s late father and John McCain, another recently passed elder of the Republican establishment.
“While the tenor of today’s national politics may have strayed from the noble example they set, I still believe that what unites us is greater than that which divides us,” Hogan said. “To those who say our political system is too broken and can’t be fixed, I would argue that we have already shown a better path forward. And if we can accomplish that here in Maryland, then there is no place in America where these very same principles cannot succeed.”
The speech set off instant speculation about Hogan’s future. “It sounded kind of a little bit national to me,” Franchot said. “I think he’ll have a lot of people putting a lot of pressure and tugging at his sleeve.” Sure enough, Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, offered up Hogan in a Saturday op-ed as “one of the few who can offer a serious and meaningful alternative to the corroded conservatism we have in Washington today.”
Hogan’s gala was packed with teasing hints, too, from the purple surfboard — a Christmas gift from Hogan’s security detail — to songs such as “Stuck in the Middle With You” and “Purple Rain” blaring as the governor worked the crowd.
At his news conference the next day, Hogan argued that he hit a lot of the same themes in his first inaugural address. (In his office afterward, he allowed “there might have been a little new phraseology here and there,” because Mark Salter — McCain’s former speechwriter — helped write this one.)
More tellingly, Hogan dodged when asked if he’d serve a full four-year term.
“That’s certainly the plan at this point,” he said. “But you never know what might happen.”