Larry Hogan’s balancing act
Governors rode high on public approval at the beginning of the pandemic, with nearly half reaching the rarified air of two-thirds support from their residents. Admiration for their leadership on COVID-19 has since steadily dwindled. The once-lauded state executives now have an overall approval rating of just 46 percent, according to the COVID States Project.
A handful of governors have bucked the downward trend. Phil Scott (R-Vt.), Chris Sununu (R-N.H.), Ned Lamont (D-Conn.) and Larry Hogan (R-Md.) have all continued to earn strong public support on their handling of COVID-19.
Lamont wasn’t as popular early-on as his Republican counterparts, but recent polling shows that the Democratic governor now earns the support of 70 percent of Connecticut residents on his handling of COVID-19. Scott, Sununu and Hogan have been the most consistent. Each Republican governor has registered ratings in the 80s and, over the course of the last year and across multiple polls, kept support for their leadership during the pandemic in the mid-60s to low 70s.
But Hogan’s popularity stands out as the most significant.
Maintaining public support in Maryland is arguably the greater political feat, as the state presents a uniquely challenging environment for a Republican governor. Indeed, Vermont is as heavily Democratic as Maryland, but like New Hampshire, it’s largely rural and overwhelmingly white. Maryland, on the other hand, has two large, heavily-Democratic urban centers and a racially diverse population. And unlike Lamont, Hogan doesn’t have the luxury of sharing a party with the majority of his state’s voters.
Hogan’s strong standing with the public far outdates the coronavirus. His overall job approval ratings haven’t dropped below the 60s in more than six years, and he won reelection by double-digits during the “blue wave” of 2018. Majorities of Democrats, women and Black Marylanders have consistently supported the job he’s done as governor. Approval from his fellow Republicans, as he has pushed back against his party’s current orthodoxy, has fallen over time and now registers slightly below that of Democrats. Still, 63 percent of Republicans approve, keeping Hogan on solid ground with his base.
A similar pattern has emerged on his response to COVID-19. Nearly three-quarters of Marylanders approve of how Hogan has handled the outbreak of the coronavirus; 80 percent among Democrats and independents compared to 65 percent among Republicans, according to a late-February Goucher College Poll. Perhaps more notable, 86 percent of Black Marylanders think he’s doing a good job managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
That doesn’t mean his response to the pandemic has been without problems or controversy in Maryland.
More than 8,000 Marylanders have lost their lives to COVID-19, ranking it only slightly better than the national average in terms of deaths per 1,000,000. The state’s unemployment system has been mired in delays since the summer, and the pace of reopening schools and businesses continues to be a source of contention. The vaccine rollout – rated fair or poor by most state residents – puts Maryland somewhere in the middle in terms of vaccination rates and has resulted in racial inequities. Maryland remains in the “orange” zone indicating escalating community spread of COVID-19, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute.
So, why hasn’t any of this hurt Hogan’s standing with the public?
The governor is adept at communicating decisions as both science- and consensus-based, even when they sometimes run contrary to public health experts and receive pushback from the public. A fixture on cable news since his stint as chair of the National Governors Association over the summer, he has used this national platform to advocate for the states and promote his approach to the pandemic. He has carefully cultivated a reputation as a pragmatist who eschews both the recklessness of other Republican governors and heavy-handedness of Democratic officials.
Hogan is also an expert at balancing the expectations of a diverse public. It’s a skill he’s sharpened over years of reconciling his own conservative instincts with the state’s left-leaning electorate and the powerful Democratic legislative majority. He is neither ideologically rigid nor does he govern in response to pressure from either end of the ideological spectrum. This is reflected in his approach to the pandemic: Every move is grounded in the recommendations of his team of health experts but shaped by public sentiment and a desire to protect the state’s economy.
Hogan will finish his time as Maryland’s second two-term Republican governor in early 2023. He has indicated interest in running for president or, at the very least, helping in some capacity to steer the Republican Party toward a post-Trump future — a position that is still at odds with many of the party’s voters.
To be sure, the characteristics that have made him a popular governor both overall and specifically on his handling of COVID-19 might have the opposite effect on a national Republican primary electorate. GOP voters currently appear more inclined toward the laissez-faire approach adopted by Govs. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) or Kristi Noem (S.D.)
Some political prognosticators largely dismiss Hogan’s chances in national GOP politics. But they should at least consider the political savvy it takes to hold together a diverse, bipartisan coalition during a national emergency and in the shadow of Trumpism before they dismiss him outright. The ability to earn support outside of the base is certainly a skill the Republican Party could use.
Mileah Kromer is an associate professor of political science and director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.