Maryland Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, Jr., was the last to throw his hat in the ring, but he has moved to the front of the polls and is sitting on the largest war chest.
Hogan will be the first to tell you that he’s not a career politician. But he’s by no means a stranger to the process. When he was 12 years old, Larry Hogan, Sr., was elected to Congress, where he served three terms representing Prince George’s County, where he went on to be county executive. Hogan Sr. was the only Republican to vote for all three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon – a move that cost him politically.
“He taught me more about ethics in an hour than most people can learn in their whole lives,” says Larry Hogan, Jr.
The younger Larry Hogan has been a businessman, a real estate broker, and appointments secretary to former Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich. He’s probably best known for heading Change Maryland, which advocates for lower taxes and regulations and limiting government spending. Hogan says he launched the organization three years ago as a counter-point to the O’Malley administration’s tax policies.
“I wanted to provide the means for average Marylanders to hold their elected officials accountable,” Hogan says, “and we wanted to try to bring fiscal responsibility and common sense to Annapolis.”
Change Maryland has attracted a large following – especially on social media. Senate Minority Whip Joe Getty says Change Maryland has also become a vital platform for conservatives in Annapolis – a counter the many Democratic-leaning lobbyists and advocacy groups.
“Change Maryland has been refreshing for us to have a group that we can turn to to do research, to do policy analysis, and provide backup and support,” Getty says.
Getty says Change Maryland’s populist appeal – and it’s 90,000-strong Facebook following – will be a boon to Hogan as he seeks the party nomination.
“Many people are affected by the tax policy of the state,” he says. “And so as far as social media, it attracted a lot of supporters, and I think that carries over to Larry Hogan as a candidate.”
Now, as Hogan runs for governor, he has folded Change Maryland into his campaign organization. And he’s running on the same pro-business message. He says Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration has made Maryland unfriendly to businesses – something he’d change if he wins the governor's mansion.
“It’s an attitude change. On day one we say Maryland’s open for business,” Hogan says. “We don’t need to be the cheapest tax state in the country, but we can’t afford to be the highest. And so we’ve got to make it more reasonable…. I’d like to roll as many [of the recent tax hikes] back to the 2007 levels before all the O’Malley-Brown increases.”
He says he would trim government spending without cutting programs. He says that by managing the government better, the state will have the savings to cut taxes.
“Larry’s kind of the happy warrior of Republican politics in Maryland,” says Richard Cross, a blogger and former GOP staffer. “I think he likes campaigning; I think he likes the battle element of politics. He likes taking the battle to Gov. O’Malley. I think he kind of feeds off of that energy.”
But conservative blogger Jeff Quinton says Hogan has yet to fully flesh out his policy ideas.
“A lot of people have criticized him for the fact that he identifies the problems that need to be fixed in Maryland,” Quinton says, “but he hasn’t really put forward many specifics about how he would go about fixing them.”
Quinton says Hogan has upset some of the party faithful by skipping candidate forums, events where he says Hogan could have shown party activists how his ideas compare to the other Republican candidates running on conservative economic issues. “People feel like they’re getting a pig in a poke and they don’t know what they’re voting for in some cases.”
Still, that hasn’t put much of a damper on Hogan’s support. New campaign finance reports this week show Hogan in a stronger position than his rivals – though that includes half a million dollars he lent to his campaign.
Towson University professor Richard Vatz says that Hogan is the Republicans’ best chance come November. He’s drawn at least some bipartisan support for his populist appeals through Change Maryland.
“The question is can you move the public, by the time of the election, to reconsider their Democratic urges,” Vatz says. “I don’t think it’s impossible, I think it’s going to be difficult.”
But Vatz says that Hogan could benefit from the same conditions that allowed Ehrlich to win the governor’s mansion in 2002: He says there’s a dearth of enthusiasm among Democrats, a Democratic frontrunner without much charisma, and a groundswell of dissatisfaction with the status quo. “I think this is a perfect storm.”
Vatz isn’t the only Republican looking for gathering storm clouds, but political scientist Dan Nataf from Anne Arundel Community College says that exuberance fails to appreciate the strength of Democrats in Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties are.
“I think they consistently underestimate how liberal the overall population of Maryland is,” Nataf says. “It’s not all Anne Arundel County, which is very kind of purple, maybe leans conservative. But those three big jurisdictions consistently elect zero republicans.”
But before he takes on any Democratic challenger, Hogan has to make it out of the primary. Two debates between the GOP candidates in coming days will give primary voters a chance to see how they stand up. On Saturday, candidates will be at Salisbury University, and on Monday they will debate in Baltimore.