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WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan testified before a Senate committee about the need for upgraded national infrastructure. The week before, he met with President Biden to discuss the forthcoming coronavirus relief package.
Meanwhile, down in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis continued to battle his own agriculture secretary because she was refusing to follow his order to lower flags around the state for Rush Limbaugh, the far-right radio provocateur who died last week. He also said he wants to limit municipalities from imposing “forever restrictions” — that is, lockdowns — surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 30,000 Floridians.
DeSantis and Hogan are both Republicans. Both are potential candidates for the 2024 nomination for president. DeSantis and Hogan appear to have challenges that, whether they run for president or not, reflect the deeper divide in the conservative movement. DeSantis thrills the base, but not the middle. Hogan appeals to centrists, which scares away the true believers. That is, true believers in former President Donald Trump — not former President Ronald Reagan.
Asked which way the party was headed, anti-Trump commentator Charlie Sykes responded with dismay: “You know the answer,” he said. While some mainstream conservatives believe that Trump’s hold on the party will loosen, Sykes predicts that Trumpian politicians like DeSantis are the future of the GOP.
“It breaks my heart to say it,” Sykes concluded. If there is a national future for the Republican establishment, Hogan will have to persuade Sykes that he is wrong.
Hogan’s political action group, An America United, comes close to avoiding the simple fact that Hogan is, in fact, a Republican (you certainly wouldn’t know that from visiting its website). As he put it during a talk at the Ronald Reagan Institute in Washington last November, Hogan believes that appealing to the “exhausted middle” with sensible policies gives Republicans the best chance to win back power in Washington. DeSantis will instead stick with the party’s Trump-supporting base, which he will address at the Conservative Political Action Conference today. Trump will speak at the conference on Sunday.
Tellingly, CPAC decamped to Florida this year. The grassroots gathering is usually held in Maryland. Although the move had less to do with the states’ respective governors than pandemic logistics, the symbolism is heavy all the same.
“Ron DeSantis is the future of the Republican Party,” Fox News commentator Lisa Boothe wrote in a recent tweet. His stock has certainly risen with conservatives eager to argue that he has handled the coronavirus pandemic better than Democratic counterparts like Gavin Newsom of California, who is facing a recall, and Andrew Cuomo of New York, who has been accused of downplaying nursing home deaths.
However, many of the claims DeSantis has made about Florida’s response deserve serious scrutiny. His best move was to push schools to reopen. Even so, his administration appears to have significantly misrepresented just how many children in Florida have fallen ill, issuing statistics that inexplicably exclude most high-schoolers, who are more likely to contract the coronavirus than their younger counterparts.
And much as DeSantis may enthrall the base, some Republicans are plainly worried that nominating him or someone like him in 2024 would be a disaster. Speaking recently to Yahoo News, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie named several Republican governors he thought could launch promising presidential campaigns: Hogan, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska.
Christie made no mention of DeSantis in his praise of Republican governors, nor another Trump favorite, Kristi Noem of South Dakota. The former president’s most politically active son, Don Jr., is hosting a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser next week for Noem, and she will deliver her own remarks at CPAC.
Hogan and Baker are about as likely to show up at CPAC as the Clintons. Hogan spent much of the Trump years relishing his role as a presidential nemesis. It is a role he inherited from his father, Lawrence Hogan Sr., who as a Republican congressman broke ranks in 1974 to support the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
The younger Hogan is a cancer survivor whose wife, Yumi, is the first Korean-American first lady to occupy a gubernatorial mansion. In 2018, Hogan easily won reelection easily against former NAACP president Ben Jealous. That victory came in a state that has become increasingly Democratic; two years later, Joe Biden would trounce Donald Trump in Maryland by 33 points. Democrats easily control both chambers of the state Legislature in Annapolis, and while there is plenty of disagreement with Hogan, neither he nor his opponents routinely engage in the kinds of confrontations that pass for “bipartisanship” in Washington.
Earlier this month, the governor and legislators passed a $1 billion coronavirus relief bill. They did not do so without disagreements, with aid for undocumented immigrants proving to be a dealbreaker for Republicans. Still, they passed it. “This bill is not a Democratic bill,” said State House Speaker Adrienne Jones, the first woman or Black person to hold that post, standing next to Hogan. “This bill is not a Republican bill. This bill is for the people.”
Hogan is betting that building bridges (of the literal and metaphorical variety) is what Americans want. Some may have voted for Trump thinking he would be the very kind of non-ideological, business-minded builder he’d pitched himself as during the 2016 presidential campaign. They got four years of partisan combat instead. To be sure, the conservative movement made lasting gains under Trump, on federal judgeships in particular, but as November's results indicated, that was not enough for the broader American public.
In his conversation with the Washington Post earlier this week, Hogan described in unstinting terms what, in his view, Trumpism has wrought. “In a four-year period, we lost the White House, the House of Representatives, the Senate,” Hogan noted (though the GOP did make House gains in 2020, after losing that chamber badly in 2018). “We lost governors, and we lost legislative bodies. So it’s not a winning message to continue to do the exact same thing and expect different results.”
DeSantis has laments of his own. Much like Trump and his closest supporters, he has been decrying what he regards as the “cancel culture” practiced by Silicon Valley and mainstream media outlets. He has gone so far as to say that his primary policy goal in 2021 would be combat “censorship” by social media platforms. That may seem like an odd priority in a state that has been among the most devastated by the coronavirus. Florida’s tourism industry is ailing, while the unemployment system is a mess. And then there’s climate change, which looms over the state’s future like a hurricane coming off the Gulf.
Trained at Harvard Law School and Yale College before that, the young governor surely knows that platforms like Twitter and Facebook are fully within their rights to ban users as they see fit. He also knows that the most famous social media outcast in the world — Donald Trump — is now one of his constituents, and is bound to reward, as he usually does, those who take up his grievances.
Trump essentially made DeSantis a national celebrity when he tweeted an endorsement of the then unknown U.S. congressman in 2018. DeSantis opened his general election campaign against Andrew Gillum, the Black mayor of Tallahassee, by warning voters not to “monkey this up,” in what some saw as a racial smear. His record of provocation has continued in the years since, culminating with the decision to lower flags for Limbaugh, who has a long history of racist, misogynistic and homophobic attitudes.
The state’s agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, happens to be the only Democrat in Florida elected to statewide office. She announced that she would not comply with the order, setting up the kind of showdown that both DeSantis and Trump seem to revel in (it is likely to help Fried, too, especially as she appears to be preparing a bid to challenge DeSantis in 2022).
“He is trying to continue to bend over backwards for President Trump and his supporters,” Fried told Yahoo News on Wednesday morning. She said it was her “moral duty” to not lower flags for a figure as divisive as Limbaugh. “I have heard from more Floridians in the last 48 hours than I did in the first two years of my administration," the commissioner said in a telephone conversation.
DeSantis eagerly continued the feud, calling Fried a “political opportunist” in a fundraising email.
Relentless pugnacity ensures that both DeSantis and his opponents are always in the news. If the theory is that all attention is good attention, DeSantis might have a point: A recent poll found him vastly more popular with Florida Republicans than the state’s two GOP senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.
At the same time, researchers from Northeastern and Harvard found him to be among the least popular governors in the nation for his response to the coronavirus outbreak. That response has included allegations that he punished a whistleblower, misrepresented data and offered guidance contravening science.
The governor’s poll numbers have been rising recently, but he is now facing allegations that he is allowing well-connected communities to benefit from inequitable vaccine distribution. Rep. Charlie Crist, who previously served as Florida’s governor and is believed by some to be eyeing a return to Tallahassee, has called on the Justice Department to investigate DeSantis over vaccine distribution.
Crist, the onetime Republican and current Democrat, had unstinting criticism of how DeSantis has responded to the pandemic. “So far it's been awful, in my humble opinion,” Crist told Yahoo News. “We're supposed to do better.” (The Department of Justice said it would not comment on whether it has any intention of starting an investigation into DeSantis.)
Jonah Goldberg, a founder of the anti-Trump conservative news outlet the Dispatch, says that DeSantis has, in his estimation been “a better governor than his schtick would have implied.” That puts him “in more of a sweet spot politically than Hogan,” Goldberg toid Yahoo News. “He’s Trump friendly and the media hates him, which is a crucial asset for Republican voters these days.”
Hogan, on the other hand, has been among the most popular governors since the pandemic hit last winter, approaching the coronavirus with apolitical know-how. When diagnostic tests were hard to come by, he and his wife got on the phone to purchase tests from South Korea. They later supervised the shipment’s arrival at a Baltimore airport, fearing the federal government might seize the kits.
Maryland, though, is a thriving mid-Atlantic state with some of the nation’s wealthiest counties ringing both Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. That makes Hogan’s brand of conservatism almost quaint, given where the party is headed. “Hogan, whom I admire, is a good representative of the suburban Republican voters the GOP is shedding in order to build a Trumpier coalition,” says Goldberg.
“I’m a big fan of Larry Hogan’s. He is my governor here in Maryland, and I think he has done a tremendous job navigating a very challenging time,” says Yuval Levin, a political theorist who has emerged as something of a standard-bearer for anti-Trump conservatives.
“I also think he has something of the mix of populist persona and policy-mindedness that it would take to better unify Republicans at this point. And I tend to think governors of purple states (or in our case, really a blue state with red patches) are best suited to leading just now.”
At the same time, Levin agreed that Hogan would have a difficult time persuading Republican primary voters in 2024, arguing that Hogan is not “well-positioned right now to build a national profile. Republican voters are looking for someone to take the fight to the left, and Hogan isn’t really interested in that.”
Levin speculated that if the GOP were to choose a Trump critic as its nominee in 2024, it was more likely to alight on Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse or Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney than on Hogan.
Voters may have their own ideas. In mid-February, Morning Consult and Politico asked Republicans whom they would vote for in a 2024 presidential primary, were that primary to be held immediately. More than half chose Trump. Hogan got 1 percent of the vote, while DeSantis did not place at all in the poll.
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