Where does Larry Hogan go from here?

Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan arrived to vote early in the Maryland primary at Annapolis Middle School on July 7.

Wednesday morning was grim in Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s orbit.

As he travels the country to test his chances as a presidential contender who could lead the Republican Party in a more inclusive direction, voters in his home state repudiated the pragmatic conservatism Hogan is trying to sell. Instead of electing his handpicked protege, who espoused the themes he cherishes, they handed victory to Del. Dan Cox, a far-right candidate backed by former president Donald Trump whom Hogan labeled “a QAnon whack job.”

Cox, who questioned whether there was an insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and has called public schools “indoctrination centers,” represents everything Hogan has railed against in his dozens of TV appearances positioning himself as a Republican alternative to Trump.

Maryland Republicans and national strategists described it as a tough loss, evidence that Hogan’s influence may be waning in the party. That is, unless you’re talking to Larry Hogan himself, who doesn’t see a loss at all.

There was no repudiation, Hogan said in an interview. “I mean, I think I’m stronger than ever,” he said, noting recent polling that gave him high popularity in the state.

Republican strategist Bill Kristol, who once encouraged the second-term governor to challenge Trump in the 2020 primary, agreed that “Hogan is popular in Maryland.”

But he added, “Hoganism, I’m afraid, as of now, is not very popular within the Republican Party in Maryland. And frankly, it’s not popular across the country right now.”

If Hogan couldn’t convince primary voters who know him and like him to embrace his vision of appealing to moderates and independents to grow the Republican Party, strategists asked, how could he sell that to GOP primary voters who never met him?

Maryland House Minority Whip Haven Shoemaker, R-Carroll, said Hogan’s reign over Maryland Republicans seemed to end Tuesday.

What we saw from the results yesterday is that there’s considerable Hogan fatigue amongst Republican primary voters in Maryland, Shoemaker said. “A lot of it is vitriol that stems from the lockdowns that we saw during the global pandemic, and a lot of it stems from the invective that the governor directed at President Trump. You can’t win a Republican primary running from the left. And I think the results yesterday demonstrated that fact.”

Primary voters overlooked Hogan’s political mentee – former state commerce secretary Kelly Schulz – and instead elevated someone the governor has openly called “crazy”: Cox. The state lawmaker attended the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol and once called former vice president Mike Pence “a traitor” (though he later expressed regret for his language).

Cox tried to impeach Hogan over coronavirus restrictions and campaigned on auditing the 2020 presidential election, restricting abortion rights, excluding transgender athletes in female sports, and enhancing parental control over sex education and the teaching of race in public schools.

Hogan argued for Schulz, a longtime friend who hewed to Hogan’s electoral playbook of emphasizing crime reduction and pocketbook issues, saying Cox was certain to lose the governor’s mansion in November to Democrats in a deep-blue state only a moderate Republican could win.

Maryland Republicans picked Cox anyway, handing Hogan a loss in what was widely viewed as a proxy war between his vision of the party and Trump’s. When Trump rallied Cox supporters earlier this month, his pitch was that Hogan was “a lousy governor” and that “anybody he wants, frankly, I’d be against just on that basis alone.”

Kristol, as with other admirers of Hogan, said, “I don’t think last night was a disaster.” But he added: “I don’t think enough of the party is where he is right now. I don’t know if that changes in the future.”

Hogan said he hopes the party adapts. He cast Cox’s win as something of a partisan swindle pulled off by Democrats, who he said put their thumbs on the scale to elevate a fringe candidate who has no shot of winning in November.

The far left was spending millions of dollars to promote, you know, conspiracy-theory-believing insurrectionists. That’s what happened, he said, adding that his own name was not on the ballot.

It really didn’t have much to do with me, Hogan said. “It’s a huge loss for Maryland and the Republican Party and a big win for, you know, the national Democrats and the Democratic Governors Association.”

The DGA spent $2 million on television and mailers in the state promoting Cox’s ties to Trump – more than either GOP candidate spent. The DGA openly conceded it sees Maryland as its best shot to flip a governor’s mansion this year.

But Hogan’s argument isn’t holding water with everyone.

I don’t really buy that, Kristol said. “The main thing is that Trump endorsed Cox; let’s be real. . . . The ad’s pretty honest, and the ad says this guy, Cox, is a Trump supporter. If that’s what appeals to the Republican primary voters in Maryland, that’s what appeals to them.”

The other candidate Hogan enthusiastically endorsed, his daughter Jaymi Sterling, won her primary race for state’s attorney in St. Mary’s County, which voted for Trump by large margins in 2020. A mix of Hogan-endorsed and Trump-endorsed candidates won in down-ballot primaries across the state, including for congressional seats.

Despite winning two terms in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, Hogan has not demonstrated coattails. When he won reelection by 12 percentage points in 2018, the GOP lost three key county executive races and at least eight competitive General Assembly seats.

The Cook Political Report, which assesses political races, reclassified the gubernatorial contest from “leans Democrat” to “solid Democrat,” after Cox’s win, skipping over the intermediate assessment of “likely Democrat.” And that’s without a definitive Democratic nominee. The race on that side is still too close to call among political newcomer Wes Moore, former U.S. labor secretary Tom Perez and Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot.

It’s been proven time and time again. The way that Republicans can win in blue states is with moderate Republicans, not Trump-style Republicans in a state that the former president lost by 33 points, said Jessica Taylor, an editor with Cook.

After Cox won, the DGA put out an advertisement using footage of Hogan’s sharp critiques of Cox to attack the new GOP nominee.

I guess they must think I’m still pretty influential, Hogan deadpanned.

Hogan said he will not support Cox in November, though pointedly said “no,” he would not campaign for the Democratic nominee instead.

Cox was not surprised.

I would hope he would do his adult duty and support his Party’s nominee, but sadly we haven’t seen anything from him except false statements and comments that he feels alone in a lifeboat, Cox said in a statement.

Doug Mayer, who was a deputy campaign manager for Hogan and a senior adviser to the Schulz campaign, deflected the implications of Cox’s win.

It has nothing to do with Larry Hogan’s political future. At the end of the day, the governor will be proven 100 percent correct when Dan Cox loses in historic fashion. It’s as simple as that, Mayer said. “There’s a decent amount of Maryland Republicans who don’t understand there’s a tidal wave of liberal insanity heading at them. And instead of battening down the hatches, they opened the front door.”

Hogan said he’s not deterred from his effort to persuade Republicans to emulate the party of Reagan. He still has stops in Iowa on his calendar for next month, though he has said he will not make a decision about running for president until after he leaves office in January.

I’ve said for a long time there’s a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party, Hogan said. “That battle is going to continue to go on for another couple of years. . . . And I, for one, am not going to stop.”