No room in the GOP personality cult
Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s Sunday announcement that he will not seek the Republican Party nomination for president in 2024 likely came as no surprise to anyone who has been following national politics. Sure, there was a time when a governor who achieved extraordinary popularity leading a state that leaned toward the opposite political party would get serious consideration. Republican Ronald Reagan’s two terms as governor of California provides the most obvious example; Bill Clinton in Arkansas, the Democratic counter. But any hope that politics might revert to this norm simply is not borne out by polling. The Donald Trump cult-of-personality hold on the GOP is too strong.
And so, it was entirely fitting that Hogan announced he was calling off his potential candidacy on the same weekend Trump was in Maryland playing a two-hour greatest hits set at the Conservative Political Action Conference meeting at National Harbor. The former governor’s pitch of low-key pragmatism isn’t what his party’s core voters are buying.
The reasoning Hogan offered for bowing out, that his candidacy might boost Trump and “angry, performative politics” by further dividing the anti-Trump faction, would make perfect sense if the reality were not far worse. Though the CPAC reception was hardly the rock-star reaction Trump has garnered from that crowd in the past, he’s still far too popular for Hogan’s measly single-digit polling numbers to have much impact. The only Republican who appears to have much chance of catching Trump is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, should he declare his candidacy as expected. DeSantis is younger and better educated than Trump, but in both policy (hard right) and personality (confrontational and smug) he seems cut from the same MAGA cloth as the 45th president. DeSantis may have skipped CPAC, but attendees ranked him a distant runner-up to Trump, who won 62% support in straw polling compared to DeSantis’ 20%.
Traditional Republicans who think, well, that’s just CPAC, where they like their candidates extreme and fire-breathing, need to recognize just how powerful that brand has become in party primaries. One recent poll suggested Hogan couldn’t even win the primary in his own state of Maryland, capturing just 18% of the vote and losing to both Trump (33%) and DeSantis (27%).
For Hogan, the writing was on the wall last year when his hand-picked successor, state Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz, lost to backbench Del. Dan Cox, the Trump stand-in. And that, in turn, gave Democrat Wes Moore a clear path to victory in the general election with the most lopsided result the state has seen in more than 30 years. Small wonder that Maryland Democrats came out attacking Cox last year before he was even his party’s nominee, knowing how that would motivate his core supporters and move him forward in the primary, securing a big win for Moore.
Could Trump be swept back into office in 2024? Maybe, but it seems highly unlikely. Even Joe Biden’s most ardent critics must recognize that the Democratic Party’s surprisingly strong showing in the 2022 midterms combined with a return of Trump still blathering falsehoods about the past bode well for the Democrat’s chances. Biden would be smart to take a tip from Maryland Democrats and their Cox strategy, and stay focused on Trump in the months ahead, no matter what DeSantis says or does. Biden beat Trump in 2020. He can do it again. And pretty handily if Trump’s lackluster two-hour CPAC speech is all he’s got.