Why Abortion Matters In This Suddenly Competitive Blue-State Senate Race

Larry Hogan has managed to make his anti-abortion rights views irrelevant in Maryland. That’ll be a tough sell as he runs for Senate.
Democrats helped elect Republican Larry Hogan twice as governor, but they may not do the same in this year's Senate race.
Democrats helped elect Republican Larry Hogan twice as governor, but they may not do the same in this year's Senate race.
Baltimore Sun via Getty Images

For eight years, Maryland was one of the handful of blue states that loved its moderate Republican governor. Roughly a third of Maryland’s registered Democrats twice crossed party lines to elect Larry Hogan, to counter the Democrat-controlled legislature of a state that President Joe Biden won by 33 points.

But Hogan won’t have an easy time convincing Democrats that he should succeed retiring Democrat Ben Cardin in a race where Republican chances went from literally nonexistent to a growing concern overnight.

Don’t expect Maryland Democrats to give Hogan a pass because they supported him for governor, or because he’s one of the few Republicans willing to say negative things about Donald Trump. Hogan’s opponents have previewed the attacks likely to dominate the general election here, and chief among them is the notion that Hogan would be a rubber stamp for Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell to appoint conservative judges and pass a national abortion ban, which is deeply unpopular among most voters.

“They don’t even need to make it seem like Hogan is an anti-abortion extremist,” said Mileah Kromer, the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College in Maryland, which conducts the Goucher College Poll. “All they need to do is tie him to a party which most Democrats already view as anti-abortion.”

Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist and former communications director of the Democratic Governors Association, acknowledged that Hogan was a “recruiting success story” for Republicans in a race they would otherwise have written off. But he emphasized that Democrats will be looking for any opportunity to yoke Hogan to a toxic GOP brand.

“Part of the reason why Larry Hogan was popular was because people knew that he was a check on the Democratic legislature, and the Democratic legislature was checking him,” Leopold said. “Now he’s running to be a vote for Mitch McConnell as leader, and that is deeply problematic in Maryland.”

It also doesn’t help Hogan that he’ll be running in a presidential election year when Democrats are likely to show up in force to repudiate Trump and the GOP. Nor is it to his advantage that he’ll be on the ballot alongside a largely symbolic measure codifying reproductive rights in Maryland’s constitution. The latter puts Hogan in the tricky position of opposing an abortion measure likely to pass overwhelmingly, and gives his rivals the opportunity to dredge up an abortion record Hogan made largely irrelevant when he was governor.

Hogan describes his personal beliefs as pro-life but also vowed to Maryland Democrats that he viewed reproductive rights as “settled law.”

The ex-governor used his promise as a backwards justification for vetoing a 2022 bill to empower nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives and physician assistants to perform abortions. That legislation also allocated $3.5 million to train abortion providers. Hogan claimed the bill went against his commitment to uphold Maryland’s existing abortion law. He also argued it would “set back standards for women’s health care and safety.”

Statehouse Democrats easily overrode Hogan’s veto, but Hogan was still able to delay the release of the $3.5 million until the arrival of his Democratic successor, Gov. Wes Moore, in 2023.

Democrats viewed the move at the time as Hogan ingratiating himself with the GOP base ahead of a possible presidential campaign or other competitive primary.

Hogan managed to avoid a contested Senate primary now by entering the race right on the filing deadline, ensuring that MAGA Republicans — who, even in deep-blue Maryland, make up a loud majority of the party — would not be able to recruit a formidable candidate to run against him. As a result, Hogan faces only a nominal challenge from retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John Teichert and two other Republicans.

Abortion is “going to be a problem now, when he’s trying to appeal to independent voters in Maryland. It’s a whole different ball game,” said Martha McKenna, a Baltimore-based Democratic strategist and former political director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Democrats. “He has never been held to account for his pro-life rhetoric.”

The two Democrats competing for their party’s Senate nomination — Rep. David Trone and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks — pummeled Hogan on abortion in statements greeting his entry into the race last Friday.

“It's going to be a problem now, when he's trying to appeal to independent voters in Maryland. It's a whole different ball game.”

- Democratic strategist Martha McKenna

Trone, the wealthy founder of a liquor store chain, called Hogan’s candidacy “nothing but a desperate attempt to return Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump to power and give them the deciding vote to ban abortion nationwide.” Alsobrooks, running to become Maryland’s first female Black senator, signaled the election would hinge on abortion rights. “We know what’s at stake in this election — our fundamental freedoms over our bodies,” she said.

Hogan, however, insisted this week on CNN that he would not support a national ban and that he’s long held a “very, very moderate position on abortion.”

As for the reproductive rights ballot measure, Hogan said he’s against it because it’s redundant in Maryland, where access to the procedure isn’t under attack. Maryland’s legislature passed a law protecting abortion rights in 1992.

“I understand why this is such an important and emotional issue for women across Maryland and across the country,” Hogan told CNN’s Dana Bash on Wednesday. “I already took a position on [it]. I said it wasn’t really necessary. There’s no threat to the protection of these rights in Maryland.

“I think the Democrats put this on the ballot to try to make it a political issue,” he added. “Voters can make their decision on whether they think it’s important or not, but... it’s not going to change anything in our state.”

Hogan’s rejection of both a national ban and Maryland’s ballot measure underscores the tightrope he’ll have to walk to keep national Republicans happy while also running at arm’s length from GOP positions proven to repel independents, who helped decide close races for Democrats in 2022 and 2023.

Hogan’s last-minute Senate campaign instantly turned sleepy Maryland into a pickup opportunity for Republicans, who need to flip only two seats to win control of the upper chamber.

But it could also force national Democrats to make tough decisions about how to allocate resources while they look to defend seats in Ohio and Montana, two red states with vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection this year. (Another variable: whether Trone, one of the richest members of Congress and a campaign self-funder, prevails over Alsobrooks in the Democratic primary.)

“Larry Hogan was a successful two-term governor who was able to get things done in Maryland,” said Chris Hartline, a Maryland native, GOP consultant and former communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Senate races are different and more nationalized than governors races, certainly. But his candidacy gives Republicans the best chance they’ve had to win a Senate race in Maryland in decades, and it puts Democrats on defense in a state they absolutely can’t afford to lose, on a map where they’re already on defense everywhere.”

Hogan enjoyed 70% approval ratings as governor by projecting a moderate image on social issues and leaning right on issues like tax cuts, which tend to be more broadly popular in wealthy liberal states.

Hogan’s role as the Republican leader of a blue state gave him the leeway to position himself as one of Trump’s few outspoken critics in the GOP. In a New York Times op-ed explaining his decision to pass on a presidential campaign, Hogan urged his party in no uncertain terms to move on from Trump.

“For too long, Republican voters have been denied a real debate about what our party stands for beyond loyalty to Mr. Trump,” he wrote last year. “A cult of personality is no substitute for a party of principle.”

The ex-governor also has a strong personal band, fighting cancer while in office and playing up the legacy of his father, Lawrence Hogan Sr., the only House Republican to vote for every article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon.

“Washington is completely broken because that kind of leadership, that kind of willingness to put country over party, has become far too rare,” Hogan said in his Senate launch video, which began with a nod to his late father. “My fellow Marylanders, you know me. For eight years, we proved that the toxic politics that divide our nation need not divide our state.”

Kromer, the Goucher College political scientist who also wrote a book on Hogan, emphasized that the ex-governor will need a massive amount of Democratic buy-in to win this race. And even Hogan’s avowed anti-Trump streak may not be enough to distract voters from the reality that he’d be a vote enabling a polarizing Republican agenda in Washington.

“It’s not Trump being on the ballot as much as anti-Republican sentiment among Democrats,” Kromer said. “It doesn’t matter how much your base loves you if you’re a Republican, or how many independents love you. The path to winning in Maryland statewide goes through Democratic voters.”

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