By Edward-Isaac Dovere and Michael Warren, CNN
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is engaging with stepped-up Republican efforts to recruit him into next year’s Senate race, CNN has learned.
The popular Republican governor’s entry into the Senate race in a blue state would immediately put Democrats on defense in what would otherwise be a sleepy reelection for Sen. Chris Van Hollen — and potentially upend Democratic efforts to hold onto the Senate majority in next year’s midterms. But running now would require Hogan to chart an anti-Donald Trump path through GOP politics, which so far no prominent Republican has been able to pull off.
Senior Republicans have been citing Republican Glenn Youngkin’s win in last month’s Virginia governor’s race, urging Hogan — who’s term-limited as governor — to look at that campaign as a model for how to run while keeping the former President at a distance and focus on local issues instead of the national GOP agenda.
Trying to appeal to the independent-minded Hogan, several prominent Republicans have also pitched him and his staff on the idea that if he won and helped Republicans achieve a narrow majority, he could be the GOP’s version of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, according to four sources familiar with these efforts. As the most conservative Democrat in the evenly divided Senate, Manchin holds enormous power within his caucus as a frequent swing vote. (Hogan currently co-chairs No Labels, the bipartisan group that Manchin previously co-chaired.)
But all of those calculations look different in Maryland — a far more blue state than Virginia, where President Joe Biden won by 33 percentage points and there hasn’t been a competitive Senate race for decades.
Asked for comment, a Hogan adviser pointed to previous interviews in which the governor has shot down the idea of running.
“It’s not something that I’m really taking a serious look at,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” last month when asked if he would run for Senate. In July, he told CBS News, “I have no interest whatsoever in running for the United States Senate,” adding that with his business and executive background, “being one guy in Washington and arguing with 99 other people and never getting anything done just doesn’t have that much appeal to me.”
Hogan’s biggest problem might be within his own party. Even if he didn’t draw a strong primary challenger and secured the nomination, he would need heavy Republican support in November. Trump has already endorsed a primary opponent to Hogan’s preferred successor in the governor’s race, and the former President has made clear that he’s looking to enforce a loyalty test in Republican politics.
People who’ve spoken to Hogan are saying that the worsening political environment for Democrats since the summer and the prospect of actually being able to win appear to be factoring into his thinking. He’s not the only Maryland Republican contemplating a relatively late entry into a statewide race: former lieutenant governor and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, another prominent anti-Trump member of the party, has been making another round of calls about jumping into the governor’s race, sources tell CNN.
Democrats are taking note. Speaking about Hogan at several recent Democratic events in the state, Van Hollen has told people privately, “I’m running as if he’s in,” according to several people who’ve heard him.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, are among those who have reached out to Hogan in recent weeks. And though the governor has publicly disavowed interest, he continues to take the meetings and the calls.
“You name the Republican, they’ve called and asked him to run,” said one GOP operative familiar with the recruitment efforts.
Republicans haven’t been making the case to Hogan just based on his own popularity. They’ve also been pointing to Van Hollen’s low name recognition, which people familiar with the data say has been evident in Republican and Democratic private polling.
Cory McCray, a state senator from Baltimore who is also the first vice chair of the state Democratic Party, said he believed a Hogan-Van Hollen race “would be pretty competitive,” citing the governor’s popularity with Democrats as well as Republicans.
“A governor is probably more well-known than a senator … and I would assume Senator Van Hollen is aware of that as well,” McCray said, adding, “Hogan is definitely a formidable opponent, but if there’s anybody who can keep that seat, it’s Chris Van Hollen.”
Van Hollen, who declined an interview request, is a political veteran. A former chair of both the Democrats’ House and Senate campaign arms, he at home diligently climbed the ranks in Maryland politics from his home base just over the border from Washington, DC, starting with the house of delegates, then the state senate, then the US House, then winning his first Senate term in 2018.
Navigating GOP politics as a Trump critic
But there’s no guarantee Hogan would even make it to the general election.
Hogan said shortly after the second impeachment trial ended that he would have been a vote to convict the former President in the Senate, among many other complaints over the years.
In the Biden era, Hogan has positioned himself as a vocal leader of the winnowing list of anti-Trump Republican politicians. He supported the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and after Trump said he hoped for primary challenges to the 13 House Republicans who supported it, Hogan spoke out in their defense.
“There’s people very, very disgusted with our governor in our area,” said Ric Metzgar, a Republican state representative from Baltimore County. “In my area, it’s no secret that it’s Trump territory. In some precincts down here, 98% of the people voted for him. … I really believe that conservative people are really upset that (Hogan) pulled away from Trump.”
But the allure of having the sole Republican candidate anyone thinks could be competitive in Maryland is enough to soothe some complaints. Minutes after complaining that Hogan “loves the TV camera,” Metzgar called back with a statement of support: “Governor Hogan has run statewide twice and won very strongly, and it would be great to have a Republican in the Senate from Maryland.”
Kathy Szeliga, the Republican state representative who lost to Van Hollen by 25 points in 2016, said she thought others would come to that conclusion as well. “I think Republican primary voters in Maryland are sophisticated enough to know that President Trump did not do well in Maryland,” she said.
Trump-embracing national Republicans are ready to be forgiving as well. “More Republicans in the Senate would be a good thing,” said American Conservative Union President Matt Schlapp, while adding, “I’d like to know his takes on the [Build Back Better Act], nationalizing voting, [Supreme Court Justices Brett] Kavanaugh and [Amy Coney] Barrett.”
Hogan’s relatively stringent Covid-19 response has gotten high marks from many, but not from Schlapp, who was frustrated that his own Conservative Political Action Conference had to move from its traditional spot in Maryland’s National Harbor because of state health restrictions. In Florida, where CPAC has relocated, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis instituted far fewer Covid-related restrictions.
“I’d like to know where he is on national issues,” Schlapp said. “We have had to move two CPACs because he was not exactly Ron DeSantis on the virus.”
Hogan is once again toying with the idea of a presidential run, which a Senate bid could either boost or complicate. If he won in 2022, he could turn around and immediately launch a 2024 campaign — or it could give him a spot to wait out a potential Trump return until 2028. But by then, Hogan, who has survived non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, would be in his early 70s. And were he to lose to Van Hollen next year, he’d have a much harder time following that up with a strong presidential run.
National Republicans have been trying to keep their Hogan courtship quiet, blest he become the latest recruit scared out of running by the party’s Trumpist turn and the attacks Democrats are preparing.
The GOP governors of Arizona, Vermont and New Hampshire and the former governor of Nevada, all moderates, were all seen as potential strong Republican Senate candidates for 2022, but all passed on running — most embarrassingly for the party, when New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu announced he was instead running for another term for governor last month.
‘I don’t think Maryland’s seen one like this before’
Though Van Hollen’s campaign wouldn’t detail how extensive its staff and operations are so far, campaign operative Keith Presley said, “Our campaign is totally prepared for whoever runs. Senator Van Hollen is busy working to get results for the people of Maryland and to protect our democracy.” And he does have a head start on fundraising: at the end of the last quarter, he had almost $4 million on hand.
National Democrats, meanwhile, are warning that if Hogan got in, they’d try to undermine his maverick brand and make him out to be just another McConnell pawn.
“If he does run, all he’ll do is join the 40-year long history of Republicans losing statewide federal elections in Maryland,” said David Bergstein, the communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Sid Saab, a Republican state representative from Anne Arundel county, doubts Hogan will jump in, but he’s holding out hope.
“It would be easy for him to put up a campaign quickly,” Saab said. “He can ramp up pretty quick, and I think he would obviously win the primary, even though there’s some Republicans who are not happy with him.”
McCray, the Democratic state senator, summed up the feelings that many in the state — Democrat and Republican — have about a Hogan-Van Hollen race: “I don’t think Maryland’s seen one like this before.”
And even Republicans loyal to the former President aren’t rejecting a Hogan candidacy outright. Asked about the prospect of Hogan running, even as a Republican opposed to Trump, former Trump communications director Jason Miller said he was ready to be enthusiastic.
“Everything is in play for 2022,” Miller said. “Everything.”
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.