Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans are stepping up a personal campaign to persuade Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to run for the Senate and help the party's chances of regaining control of the chamber.
The recruitment effort has included McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, who held Cabinet positions in the Trump and George W. Bush administrations. Moderate Senate Republicans, including Susan Collins of Maine, have also been in direct contact with Hogan to note that his centrist brand of politics would be welcome in a chamber riven with partisanship. Several other Washington officials have made financial pledges or shared internal polling to try to convince Hogan that he has a path to victory.
President Joe Biden carried Maryland by 32 percentage points in 2020 and a Republican hasn't won a statewide federal office in more than 30 years. Hogan, who is prevented by term limits from running for reelection, has long resisted the idea of challenging Democratic incumbent Sen. Chris Van Hollen. One of the GOP's most prominent critics of former President Donald Trump, Hogan has toyed with mounting a presidential campaign in 2024.
Still, his willingness to recently engage with high-profile recruiters suggests Hogan has not ruled out a Senate run. If he were to enter the Senate race instead, it would force Democrats to devote money and other resources in a longtime blue state at a time when they're already bracing for a difficult campaign season across the country.
Hogan maintained on Monday that he remains focused on his work as governor.
“While I appreciate all the encouragement and outpouring of support in Maryland and across the country, my focus continues to be on leading Maryland through the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing our economic recovery and addressing rising violent crime,” Hogan told The Associated Press. “As long as I have the honor to serve as governor, I’m going to give this job everything I’ve got.”
The recruitment effort was described by multiple people with direct knowledge of the talks. They requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Hogan’s decision, which must come before the Feb. 22 filing deadline, is among the last major unanswered questions as the Senate landscape begins to settle heading into the first midterm election cycle of Biden's presidency.
Publicly, Democrats remain confident about their standing in state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1.
“Our campaign is totally prepared for whoever Mitch McConnell recruits to run here," Van Hollen spokesman Keith Presley said. “Senator Van Hollen is busy working to get results for the people of Maryland and to protect our democracy.”
For their part, McConnell and Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who leads the GOP's Senate campaign arm, have held multiple recruitment conversations with Hogan in recent months. McConnell's lieutenant, Steven Law, who leads a McConnell-allied super PAC, also spoke to the Republican governor.
More recently, however, the GOP recruitment push has gotten more personal.
With Hogan unpersuaded by McConnell's pitches, Chao encouraged a Senate bid during a private lunch with Hogan's wife in the Maryland governor's mansion. Chao brought her father to another private lunch with Mrs. Hogan, which the governor briefly attended.
During the lunches, Chao emphasized the sense of community on Capitol Hill with the other senators’ families. She also appealed to Mrs. Hogan’s sense of patriotism, pitching the Senate as a great way for the Hogans to serve their country. Chao and Yumi Hogan, both prominent Asian Americans, were friends before the Senate race became a focus.
At the same time, a handful of Republican senators, including Collins, have reached out to Hogan directly to encourage him to run. And more than one suitor, including at least one fellow Republican governor, has made the case that the Senate could be a stepping stone to a future presidential bid, which Hogan has openly contemplated.
Those close to Hogan are skeptical he will ultimately decide to run for the Senate. So far, he has done nothing to prepare for a Senate campaign aside from agreeing to speak to his Republican recruiters.
Washington Republicans are betting that Hogan could break their losing streak in Maryland. He's already won statewide office twice, including in 2018, an election year that favored Democrats nationally. He's enjoyed relatively strong approval ratings throughout his time in office.
But history suggests that appeal in statewide elections may not transfer to higher office. Montana's former two-term governor, Steve Bullock, was a prized Democratic recruit for Senate in 2020 who went on to lose his race by 10 percentage points in a campaign dominated by national issues.
Facing a similar dynamic and decrying partisanship in Washington, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu in November resisted an aggressive lobbying push from McConnell and his allies and instead announced plans to seek another term as governor.
Should Hogan run, his team knows he will be tested as never before.
For example, he has so far largely avoided the stain of a developing ethics scandal involving his former chief of staff, Roy McGrath, who is facing multiple state and federal criminal charges related to a severance package he sought when he left the top job at a quasi-public state agency to serve as Hogan’s top aide.
McGrath has indicated he has secret recordings of conversations with Hogan proving that the governor knew of and supported the severance package.
The messy situation is just the kind of political ammunition critics in both parties might use to attack Hogan in a well-funded television advertising campaign.
“The fact that Hogan would vote to make Mitch McConnell Majority Leader and turn the Senate over to Republicans — coupled with his escalating corruption and ethics scandals — would provide voters more than enough reasons to decisively reject his campaign," said David Bergstein, spokesman for the Senate Democrats' campaign arm. "If he does run, all he’ll do is join the 40-year long history of Republicans losing statewide federal elections in Maryland.”
Associated Press writer Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, contributed to this report.