Does Larry Hogan Have A Shot Against Trump In A 2020 GOP Primary?

In 1974, Rep. Lawrence Hogan Sr. became the first Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee to call for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Now there’s speculation in Washington that his son, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, might challenge President Trump in the 2020 Republican presidential primary. So we decided to take a look at what might prompt Hogan to run and how he might fare against Trump. Hogan would not have an easy go of it, but we can see why he might run — and why he might find some success.

First, a look at his record. Larry Hogan became the governor of Maryland after pulling off an upset victory against Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in 2014. In 2018, Hogan cruised to re-election, winning by 12 percentage points despite Maryland’s deep-blue hue and a Democratic-leaning national environment. Hogan was the first Republican governor to win re-election in the state since 1954. But that came as no surprise: Just before the election, Hogan had the second-highest approval rating of any governor in the country, at 67 percent, according to polling by Morning Consult. Hogan can’t run for governor again because of term limits.

According to OnTheIssues, which tries to measure a politician’s positions based on votes and public statements, Hogan’s views are notably more moderate than those of either Trump or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — the most powerful Republican in Congress — which might help explain Hogan’s continued success in Maryland. His candidacy also had a feel-good element: Hogan overcame cancer during his first term — twice, actually.

Hogan has been critical of Trump. In the aftermath of August 2017’s violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Hogan called Trump’s “both sides” response a “terrible mistake.” And in his second inauguration speech, Hogan said that Americans like his father, who bucked partisanship for the sake of the country, made people “yearn for something better and more noble than the politics of today.”

Practical considerations might also push him to run. Although Marylanders have sent Hogan to the governor’s mansion twice, a Senate seat might still be out of reach (partisanship tends to matter more in congressional races than in gubernatorial contests). And at 62, Hogan might feel like this is his moment to try for the presidency — not, say, in 2024, when he will have been out of office for two years.

So if Hogan were to challenge Trump for the GOP nomination … could he actually win? Well, it depends on what your definition of “win” is. (Bear with me for a second.)

In the modern era of presidential primaries, no incumbent president has ever lost renomination.1 Heck, the last time a president didn’t win renomination was in 1884, when Republican President Chester A. Arthur lost to James Blaine at the GOP convention. Moreover, among rank-and-file Republicans, Trump’s approval rating remains high — north of 80 percent. So actually defeating Trump in a Republican primary contest would be quite difficult, based on what we know now.

But if Hogan’s goal is to win a substantial share of the vote while making the case for a different kind of Republicanism, that seems more attainable. National polls find Trump in reasonably good shape against potential primary foes, but surveys suggest that at least some Republicans in the early primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa might be open to alternatives.

And the president’s national numbers could present an opening. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018, Republican leaners — independents who say they “lean” toward the Republican Party — were less likely than self-identified Republicans to approve of Trump. And among all voters — so, not just Republicans — somewhere between one-third and half of those who approve of the president’s job performance say they only “somewhat” approve, as opposed to “strongly” approve, according to recent polls. It’s possible, though far from certain, that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election could help Hogan attract some Republicans if serious negative revelations about the president come out. Although polls show that most Republicans believe the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt” and that the president is handling the matter appropriately, Trump’s numbers could worsen in the face of damning evidence and make an alternative choice like Hogan more attractive.

Hogan’s centrism could also make him competitive in New Hampshire, long known for its relative moderation. Other recent Republicans running as middle-of-the-road candidates have garnered a substantial share of the primary vote there, albeit without an incumbent president in the field. In 2016, Ohio Gov. John Kasich finished second in the New Hampshire primary, with 16 percent; in 2012, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, now the U.S. ambassador to Russia, finished third, with 17 percent.

Still, Hogan could have a tough time breaking through. If Trump’s popularity among Republicans holds steady, he’ll go into the 2020 primary with one of the highest intra-party approval ratings of any recent president running for re-election. Also, Hogan has generally shied away from social issues such as abortion — though he’s personally against it — which means he might have trouble attracting support among socially conservative Republicans. Although that might not be much of a problem for Hogan in less socially conservative states like New Hampshire, it’s difficult to see him building meaningful support in other early primary states such as Iowa or South Carolina (if they even participate in the GOP primary in 2020). One can imagine Hogan winning over some suburban voters in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and West Coast, but it’s not clear that he could win a state beyond his own, which probably won’t vote until April 2020.

All in all, it would be tough sledding for Hogan to defeat Trump in the 2020 GOP presidential primary. Nonetheless, he’s a popular governor who would present a clear-cut alternative to the president. So perhaps Hogan could make a splash and win over a substantial chunk of the Republican electorate. That alone would be significant: The past three presidents to endure a notable primary challenge — Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 — all went on to lose in the general election.

Split-Ticket Voting Hit A New Low In 2018 Senate And Governor Races

We went into Election Day with a hypothesis: Most Americans would cast a straight-ticket ballot — with some notable exceptions, which we’ll address in a moment. And we decided a good way to test this was to look at statewide races most likely to drive turnout in a midterm election cycle: U.S. Senate and governor contests.

There were 22 states that had races for both the Senate and governor on the ballot this election cycle. And what we found was the same party swept both offices in 16 of the 21 states where each race has been called23, with Democrats capturing both races in 12 states and Republicans doing so in four. Or, in other words, our hypothesis was mostly right — most Americans did vote for the same party in their Senate and governors race. But there were five states — Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio and Vermont — where voters chose a Republican governor and a Democratic senator.

And while we were interested in what happened in these five states (more in a moment), we also wanted to look at every state that had both a Senate and governor race on the ballot to see just how far apart the voting margins were. The idea was this will help us understand how uncommon — or common — split-ticket voting was in 2018. And we could then situate what happened in 2018 by looking at previous midterms to see if there was a trend in how much split-ticket voting occurred between these two offices. (Spoiler: Split-ticket voting hit a new low.)

To do this, I calculated the difference between the margin of victory in the Senate and gubernatorial races for each state using the Democratic and Republican vote shares in each contest.24 And as the table below shows, Massachusetts had the biggest difference between its vote share margin in its races for Senate and governor. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker won reelection by about 32 percentage points and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren garnered a second term with a roughly 26-point margin, producing a gap of 57 points. So, in other words, in hyper-blue Massachusetts roughly 25 to 30 percent of voters cast ballots for both Baker and Warren.25 Two other states, Vermont and Maryland, also had very large differences between their Senate and governor races — about 55 and 47 points, respectively. Along with Massachusetts, these races all featured relatively popular incumbent Republican governors — Phil Scott in Vermont and Larry Hogan in Maryland — running in strongly Democratic states that easily reelected incumbent Democratic senators. The popularity and independent streaks of these GOP governors clearly helped them overcome the sharply Democratic leans of their states.

Split ticket voting in statewide races is pretty rare

Difference between the size of the margin of victory in 2018 Senate and governor races

Senate Governor
State Winner Incumb. Margin Winner Incumb. Margin Difference
MA Warren +25.5 Baker +31.9 57.4
VT Sanders* +40.3 Scott +14.6 54.9
MD Cardin +33.4 Hogan +13.4 46.8
CT Murphy +20.2 Lamont +3.1 17
AZ Sinema +2.0 Ducey +14.4 16.5
HI Hirono +42.3 Ige +29.0 13.3
MN‡ Klobuchar +24.1 Walz +11.4 12.7
ME King* +19.0 Mills +7.6 11.5
TX Cruz +2.6 Abbott +13.3 10.7
NY Gillibrand +33.0 Cuomo +22.3 10.7
OH Brown +6.4 DeWine +4.2 10.6
TN Blackburn +10.8 Lee +21.1 10.2
WI Baldwin +10.9 Evers +1.1 9.7
NM Heinrich +23.5 Grisham +14.3 9.2
RI Whitehouse +23.0 Raimondo +15.5 7.6
PA Casey +12.8 Wolf +16.8 4
MI Stabenow +6.4 Whitmer +9.5 3
WY Barrasso +36.9 Gordon +39.8 2.9
NV Rosen +5.0 Sisolak +4.1 0.9
MN‡ Smith +10.6 Walz +11.4 0.8
NE Fischer +19.2 Ricketts +18.9 0.4

Election data as of 10 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2018. Only states with both a Senate and gubernatorial election that featured candidates from both major parties are included. This means California is excluded because no Republican candidate qualified for its Senate election. Florida is also not included because both its Senate and gubernatorial elections are still uncalled. Some data may not add up due to rounding.

*Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Maine Sen. Angus King are included as Democrats because they caucus with the party in the Senate.

‡Minnesota is included twice because it had two Senate elections this year.

Source: ABC NEWS

But these three states were notable outliers — no other state had a difference between their Senate and governor races that was greater than 17 points. That said, these less divided contests can still show you where a stronger candidate for one party may have made a difference. Take Tennessee’s Senate race, for instance. Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn defeated Democrat Phil Bredesen there, but Bredesen — a popular former governormade the Senate contest notably closer than the gubernatorial election.

Incumbency may have been a factor, too. Both the Tennessee Senate and gubernatorial races were open seats, but in another GOP-leaning state like Ohio, there was one incumbent on the ballot, which might help explain why Ohioans elected a Democratic senator and a Republican governor. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won his race by about 6 points and Republican Mike DeWine won the open-seat governor race by 4 points. Given that Ohio is 7 points to the right of the country, Brown probably benefited at least some from an incumbency advantage The two races ran relatively close together — the difference was 11 points — suggesting that most voters voted for the same party in both contests.

But we were also interested in what would happen if we took a step back and zoomed out, looking at other midterm cycles and split-ticket voting. How would 2018 compare? It turns out that 2018 is part of a trend that shows fewer Americans are splitting their tickets (at least in races for the Senate and governors in midterm elections). This election had the smallest median difference of any midterm cycle going back to at least 1990 — 10 points.26

As you can see, even though 2018 has the lowest mark in the past three decades, the median difference from election cycle to election cycle has bounced around. Still, the overall trend is one of decline, at least since 1998. You might wonder why there are fairly regular ups and downs in the chart, but this can be explained by the number of elected governors running for re-election in each cycle.

For example, only eight incumbent governors ran in the 24 states included in my calculations for 2010, whereas in the 2014 cycle there were 16 states with incumbent governors. And what I found was cycles with fewer incumbent governors running tended to show less evidence of split-ticket voting (a lower median) while cycles with more incumbents demonstrated more evidence of split-ticket voting (a slightly higher median). Part of this is because governors often benefit from an incumbency advantage. As my colleague Nate Silver pointed out in his introduction to FiveThirtyEight’s governor forecast, partisanship explains less in gubernatorial elections than it does in federal contests, and therefore, incumbency might matter slightly more for governors than it does in either the House or Senate.

No matter which way you cut it, the difference between the margins in a state’s gubernatorial and Senate races has shrunk. More voters are casting straight-ticket ballots. There are exceptions, of course, but this shift matches what we know about the larger electoral picture: voters are more partisan and the country is more divided than it’s ever been in the modern era of U.S. politics.

CORRECTION (Nov. 19, 2018, 2:30 p.m.): A table in an earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that the Democratic Senate candidate in Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, was the incumbent. The race was for the seat that Republican Sen. Jeff Flake is retiring from.