Maryland Senate: Republicans’ Hero Hogan

by Jacob Rubashkin February 13, 2024 · 4:01 PM EST

Senate Republicans scored a major coup last week when former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced he would run for the Old Line State’s open Senate seat this fall. Hogan’s last-minute entrance, which caught even the most plugged-in Maryland politicos off-guard, puts Maryland’s race on the battlefield, and it’s undoubtedly a headache for Senate Democrats, who are already on defense in seven other states and have just one offensive opportunity to offset losses.

But a race in play is different from a race in hand for Republicans, and Hogan faces a steep climb in a state that hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate since Mac Mathias in 1980. Despite some polls showing Hogan with a lead over his potential Democratic opponents, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks and Rep. David Trone, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical that he’ll be a senator next year.

Maryland has become one of the most Democratic-leaning states in the country. In the 2020 presidential election, it voted for Joe Biden by 33.2 points, a greater spread for the Democrat than in all but two other states. It was one of just five states where Biden’s advantage exceeded 1 million votes, more than larger states such as Washington, New Jersey and Virginia. (By comparison, the states Trump won by a similar margin were North Dakota and Oklahoma.)

In Hogan’s landslide victory in 2018, he won 1,275,644 votes — enough for 55 percent of the vote that year but nowhere close to the total he’ll need to amass in a presidential election cycle when total votes cast will likely top 3 million. And he reached that mark largely untouched by his opponents. In 2018, Hogan was not a priority for Democrats, and between his campaign and the Republican Governors Association he outspent opponent Ben Jealous by more than three-to-one. This cycle, he’s sure to face significant outside spending against him.

Hogan’s two wins in ocean-blue Maryland are not to be understated. According to Inside Elections’ Vote Above Replacement score, his 2018 performance was the seventh-strongest result relative to partisanship of any statewide candidate in the country over the last decade. But he also ran against two flawed opponents: Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in 2014, who was saddled with the bumpy rollout of the state’s ACA exchange that year; and Jealous in 2018, the former NAACP head and political newcomer who won a contentious primary by tacking to the left.

Neither Trone, an uber-wealthy three-term congressman, nor Alsobrooks, a two-term county executive and prosecutor with the potential to make history as Maryland’s first Black senator, are slouches. Either would be Hogan’s toughest opponent by far.

Hogan has never had to run in a presidential election year, and though he’s long distanced himself from the deeply unpopular likely GOP nominee — contemplating running against him in 2020 and 2024 — he’ll still have to deal with an electorate primed to reject Republicans.

He’s also never run in a post-Dobbs environment, and Democratic strategists in the state believe that makes him more vulnerable. In his last year in office, Hogan vetoed legislation that would have expanded abortion access and paid family leave in Maryland, which will be fodder for Democrats. And there will be a referendum enshrining abortion rights on the ballot this fall as well, meaning the issue will be top of voters’ minds.

More broadly, Democrats in the state are already taking Hogan, and his chances of winning, very seriously, but there’s also plenty of confidence that with appropriate resources they can defeat him without too much suspense in the fall.

“It’s a very uphill climb in the general election,” said one well connected Maryland Democratic strategist. “Either Trone or Alsobrooks is going to be able to effectively communicate that Hogan is a nice guy but a vote for him is a vote for McConnell and Trump.”

“I think he can win,” said another longtime Maryland Democratic consultant, “but I don’t think he will.  We just have to make sure the money is there and the case is made.”

The consultant lauded Hogan’s political chops and hustle, saying “he would not have gotten into this if there weren’t a path.” But they also argued that Maryland Democrats, most of whom approved of Hogan’s job as governor, would be uniquely receptive to a nationalized political argument centered on controlling the Senate.

“Maryland is home to every assistant undersecretary of the department of the whatever,” they said, “These are people who understand how a Republican senate screws us as a country, on civil rights, women’s rights, abortion rights, democracy.”

Recruiting a popular governor or former governor to run for the Senate is nothing new for Senate strategists, but recent years underscore how difficult it can be to go from winning a gubernatorial contest, where voters are much more willing to look past national partisanship, to winning a Senate race that by definition takes place within the national context.

The list of red state Democratic governors and blue state Republican governors who failed to win Senate seats is robust. Among Democrats, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove lost the 2008 Mississippi Senate special election, former Gov. Ted Strickland lost the 2016 Senate race in Ohio, former Gov. Phil Bredesen lost the 2018 Tennessee Senate race, and Gov. Steve Bullock lost the 2020 Montana Senate race. Among Republicans, former Gov. Jim Gilmore lost the 2008 Senate race in Virginia and former Gov. Linda Lingle lost the 2012 Senate race in Hawaii.

That’s not to say some of those governors weren’t good gets for their party and didn’t have an impact on the fight for the Senate.

The 2018 Tennessee race attracted $41 million in outside advertising, including $17.1 million from Democratic groups and $21.4 million from GOP groups, money that, absent Bredesen’s presence, would have gone to a dozen more competitive races. And though he lost by 11 points, Bredesen put up the best performance for a Tennessee Democrat in a decade, with a Vote Above Replacement of 8.5.

The 2020 Montana race was an even more expensive affair, with $155 million in total spending, with $104.6 million coming from outside groups. Bullock lost by 10 points but outperformed the top of the ticket by 7 points.

Ultimately, Maryland is more likely to resemble those races than previous decades in which significant ticket splitting was the norm. Hogan will outperform Trump by a significant margin, and may even have a polling lead for much of the spring and summer, as the Democratic primary sorts itself out and the eventual nominee shifts into general election mode. 

But the former governor will face an onslaught of negative advertising from national Democrats (and potentially a wealthy opponent) and less favorable political dynamics than he is accustomed to.

While Democrats may have to spend big to encourage that political gravity to take hold, there’s little question those resources will ultimately be available. In the end, the most important races for control of the Senate continue to be in Ohio and Montana, where Democrats, not Republicans, are hoping to break against the political tide.