New primary challenger to Trump emerges: Larry Hogan?

Fascinating for various reasons, starting with the fact that Hogan is an unusually successful blue-state Republican governor who’s somehow completely avoided being entangled in the moderates-versus-populists-versus-conservatives Republican civil war. You almost never see him mentioned in any context in right-wing political activism. He’s just sort of his own thing, like one of those genial oatmeal-y Republican governors that Massachusetts tends to produce to whom no one pays attention.

Actually, I suppose you do hear about those guys now and then.

Let’s stipulate up front that Hogan wouldn’t have a prayer of defeating Trump. What’s interesting about his potential candidacy isn’t that he might win, it’s how sharp the contrast would be between him and POTUS.

The second-term Maryland governor has been implicitly going after Trump in speeches, meeting with Never Trump Republicans, and planning a March trip to Iowa as vice chair of the National Governors Association…

Hogan used his inaugural address on Wednesday to repudiate the “debilitating politics” of Washington — and to raise the specter of impeachment. He recalled how his father, former Rep. Lawrence Hogan, was the first Republican congressman to support the removal of Richard Nixon…

The White House is paying close attention. The president’s political aides have been monitoring the Maryland governor for months, and several said they regarded the inauguration speech as an unmistakable act of aggression. They noted that Trump 2016 primary rival Jeb Bush was a featured speaker at the ceremony, and that Mark Salter, a longtime Republican speechwriter and a fierce Trump critic, helped craft Hogan’s address.

His claim to fame is having freakishly high approval ratings despite being a Republican governing the deep-blue state of Maryland. He’s frequently one of the top two in polls of most popular governors. (The other is the, er, oatmeal-y Republican governor of Massachusetts.) Two months ago, weighed down by Trump fatigue, Republicans got blitzed in purple jurisdictions from coast to coast. Hogan, meanwhile, was coasting to a double-digit reelection win over his Democratic opponent, the former head of the NAACP. To voters too, it seems, he’s his own thing. You can hate the Trump-era GOP and have no problem waving Larry Hogan through for a second term.

The secret to his success would also be the chief line of attack against him in a contest with Trump. The man is a liberal Republican *at best*. He’s strongly anti-Trump, pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, open to some gun-control regulation, supports the Paris Accord — he’s a centrist Democrat, in other words. And Trump would wallop him every day for being one. A primary challenge from the right would at least force Republican voters to consider who’s more reliably right-wing on the issues, Trump or that challenger. With Hogan, there’d be no question. Conservatives who are leery of POTUS and willing to at least take a look at an alternative would roll their eyes at Hogan and stick with Trump.

Wouldn’t they? Here’s the thing about Hogan: Stylistically he’s about as un-Trumpish as one can get. Trump is obsessed with image, is forever boasting about this or that, is right now engaged in a staring contest with Democrats over the wall to prove how steely his resolve is. Many millions of Republicans like all of that about him. Many millions of other Republicans are less enthused:

It’s a weird but true fact in our political era that voters seem to seek out strong stylistic contrasts in candidates to challenge the status quo they despise. Dubya was a folksy WASP scion of a Republican dynasty; he was replaced by the first black president, a former Ivy League professor; he in turn was replaced by a tell-it-like-it-is reactionary from Queens vowing to champion the “forgotten” white working class. A Republican as liberal as Hogan would have been dead on arrival in a multi-candidate primary like the GOP held in 2016. But in 2020, his brand wouldn’t be defined by his own beliefs so much as they’d be defined by the contrast with Trump, in every sense. He’s low-key, schlubby, compromise-minded, interested in policy details, critical of Trump’s excesses — in almost every way he’d be the un-Trump in a primary. And that’s exactly what some Republican voters want, a contrast. A protest vote. Jeff Flake and John Kasich aren’t ideal protest votes because they’re already fairly well-defined figures in Republican minds; you can dislike Trump but also feel “eh” about either of them because of your exposure to them over time. But Hogan might be the closest the party could come to a generic likable Not Trump alternative. How would that fare?

He wouldn’t win. But there’s a solid chance he’d do better than Flake would.

And who knows? Maybe the faction of righties who voted for Hogan in the primary *because* of his liberal stances would be larger than we expect. That’s another feature of Trump-era politics, especially on the right. The base is far more open to heresies against traditional Republican orthodoxy than anyone guessed during the tea party era. A good Republican supports free trade, right? Er, not really. A good Republican opposes hiking taxes on the rich, believing that that will slow economic growth that benefits everyone, correct? No, not correct. A good Republican supports an aggressive interventionist foreign policy in the conviction that we should fight them over there instead of over here! Except no, not so much that one either. If Hogan runs we may get a glimpse of what other alleged guiding principles the GOP electorate will and won’t tolerate deviations from. How many Republicans who dislike Trump would be willing to vote for a pro-choice alternative, even if they’d prefer a pro-life one? More than we think, I’d bet.