HAGERSTOWN — Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is the most popular political figure in Maryland, but this election season he has largely kept his star power to himself.
In a polarizing election, Hogan has eschewed a governor’s traditional role as de facto head of his political party. He has endorsed just four candidates, headlined a handful of fundraisers and made few public appearances with candidates on the campaign trail.
“I don’t think I have an obligation to elect Republicans,” Hogan said during a recent swing through Western Maryland. “I’m going to help the people I think are doing a good job.”
In less than a month, Maryland will elect a new senator to succeed retiring Barbara A. Mikulski, eight members of the House of Representatives and new mayor, City Council and comptroller for Baltimore.
Hogan’s judicial, low-key approach to the first political season of his tenure as governor reflects his reluctance to appear partisan and his desire that voters see him first as a leader, second as member of a political party.
“I’m the highest elected official in the state, who happens to be a Republican,” Hogan said.
With Hogan’s approval rating over 70 percent in a state dominated by Democrats, his endorsement is a prize coveted by many and bestowed on very few. After Hogan publicly backed Senate candidate Kathy Szeliga, the Republican state delegate’s campaign prominently affixed “Hogan endorsed” to her yard signs.
“He’s not blanketedly going around giving endorsements,” Maryland Republican Party executive director Joe Cluster said. “He’s picking and choosing the candidates he agrees with.”
Cluster sees Hogan deploying a long-term strategy that has more to do with keeping his office in 2018, when the state elects a governor who will have considerable influence over redrawing legislative and congressional districts. The once-in-a-decade opportunity would allow Hogan to propose altering political boundaries to give Republicans an edge.
“The most important election for the Maryland Republican Party is getting Larry Hogan getting re-elected,” said Cluster, also a state delegate.
Maryland’s Republicans, outnumbered more than 2-1 on the voting rolls, expect to make few gains in November. Polls have Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leading Republican Donald Trump in Maryland by more than 30 percentage points, a circumstance likely to hurt down-ballot candidates.
Hogan aims to maintain a broad appeal.
“We’d like to have the support of everybody,” Hogan said. “We could not have possibly been elected — or possibly be as successful as we are — without the overwhelming support of independents and the unbelievable support of crossover Democrats.
“They used to be called Reagan Democrats. Now they’re Hogan Democrats.”
Hogan has neither endorsed nor campaigned for the state’s lone incumbent Republican congressman, Rep. Andy Harris, whose Eastern Shore district is considered safe. Hogan has also withheld endorsement of the Republican vying to be the next mayor of Baltimore, where Democrats outnumber Republicans tenfold.
“His popularity could be useful to me,” said Republican mayoral candidate Alan Walden, who hopes Hogan’s staff will call with an endorsement soon. He believes it would boost his fundraising numbers against better-financed Democrat Catherine E. Pugh, a state senator.
Baltimore County Del. Pat McDonough also wanted a boost from Hogan’s popularity, but he said the governor won’t return phone calls about an endorsement. McDonough is running against incumbent Democrat Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger in the 2nd Congressional District.
“We’re on borderline selfishness here,” said McDonough, in describing Hogan’s inaction.
“I voted for his legislative agenda. I was on talk radio when nobody thought he could win. I worked very hard for him,” McDonough said. “One of the things about political parties is something called loyalty.”
McDonough predicted an “upset” win for himself even without Hogan, but said it is the governor’s duty to help his party. “If he’s not working for the Republican candidates, he’s working for the Democrats,” McDonough said.
Ruppersberger won re-election for the sixth time in 2014 with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Republicans in Maryland also aren’t united behind Trump at the top of the ticket. McDonough is backing the New York businessman, while Hogan said in June he would not vote for his party’s presidential nominee. A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll showed that Hogan’s decision helped buoy his support among Maryland Democrats.
Hogan’s choices during this campaign season show “he sees the path to a pretty easy re-election,” said Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College.
“Why go out of your way to endorse candidates who have some sort of link to Donald Trump?” Deckman said, adding that Hogan has “avoided, scrupulously, anything partisan.”
Candidates who receive Hogan’s support have brandished it.
The governor endorsed Republican Matt McDaniel last month in a City Council race against Democrat Zeke Cohen to represent Southeast Baltimore. While Hogan lost in the city two years ago, he carried that particular district.
The governor issued the latest of three congressional endorsements on Tuesday, backing physician Mark Plaster’s underdog campaign against incumbent Democratic Rep. John P. Sarbanes in the 3rd Congressional District.
When a reporter asked why the governor’s popularity hadn’t rubbed off on other Republicans, the governor blamed the media for those candidates’ poor name recognition among voters.
“If you folks in the media would pay more attention to these folks who are out there running, they might know them better,” Hogan said.
Hogan made his first congressional endorsement — of Szeliga — in July. She has campaigned on it ever since.
The “Hogan endorsed” addition “reminds Marylanders that Kathy Szeliga is of the exact same mold as Larry Hogan,” said Leslie Shedd, Szeliga’s deputy campaign manager.
Szeliga’s fundraising lags far behind that of her opponent, Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, but a fundraiser Hogan headlined for Szeliga took in more than $60,000. Shedd said it was one of the most lucrative events of Szeliga’s campaign.
This weekend, Hogan campaigned in Western Maryland with Szeliga and 6th Congressional District candidate Amie Hoeber. Hogan endorsed Hoeber last month.
“He charms everyone, and that’s obviously a help to me,” Hoeber said, adding she thinks a Friday fundraiser with the governor was her most successful yet.
Hoeber is trying to wrestle the 6th District from Democratic Rep. John Delaney, a political adversary of Hogan who once paid for a mobile billboard challenging the governor to take a position on Trump. To antagonize the governor, Delaney had the truck circle the State House in Annapolis.
Hogan “wants someone in Congress he can work with, and he obviously can’t work with the incumbent,” Hoeber said.
While Hogan has appeared sporadically in public for Hoeber, at least one of his allies is involved in the effort to elect her. Steve Crim, Hogan’s former campaign manager, who left the administration in May, was paid $15,000 last month to act as consultant for a super PAC supporting Hoeber, according to a recent Federal Election Commission filing.
The committee, Maryland USA, is funded almost exclusively by Hoeber’s husband, Mark Epstein.
Maryland’s previous Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., played a more prominent role in the state party, hand-picking a chairman and regularly attending fundraisers.
Hogan has not openly weighed in on party leadership. He skipped the party’s biggest fundraisers two years in a row and declined invitations to smaller ones, though Cluster said the governor does help raise money.
“He’s not openly being, ‘Hey, give to the Republican Party,'” Cluster said. “The governor would have not gotten elected if he had not gotten 20 percent of the Democrats to vote for him. In this state, you have to appeal to the Democrats.”
Hogan said it’s not his role to lead Maryland Republicans. “We have a chairman of the Republican Party. That’s obviously not me.”
Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze and the Associated Press contributed to this article.