The votes were still being counted in New Jersey and Virginia when Gov. Larry Hogan’s phone first began blowing up.
Pointing to Tuesday’s election results as a harbinger of a favorable midterm environment for all GOP candidates on the ballot next year, the callers sought to persuade the popular Maryland Republican to jump into the Senate race against Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen, whose reelection is all but assured otherwise.
A Hogan adviser said Wednesday at least one of those calls came from Senate leadership, though the adviser declined to say from whom.
One day after blue-state Democrats were pummeled at the polls — losing the Virginia governorship and nearly losing in New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy squeaked to reelection by a razor-thin margin — Republicans redoubled their efforts to expand the Senate map by convincing several reluctant top-tier Senate prospects to run in 2022. This time, the recruitment pitch came with a powerful new data set drawn from the off-year elections.
“We have great candidates in our races,” Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), the National Republican Senatorial chair, said Wednesday. “I bet there’s more people that are going to want to get in because they can see there’s a path.”
Hogan is one of a trio of GOP governors who top the party’s wish list, along with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. All of them have been subject to longstanding efforts to convince them to take on Democratic senators in 2022.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the second-highest ranking Republican, noted Tuesday’s election results confirm a path exists for “right of center conservatives” like Sununu, Ducey and Hogan to succeed in Senate races next year.
Sununu has said he is still mulling a decision on running for Senate, but is widely expected to announce he will take on Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan. Ducey said earlier this year he had no plans to run, though Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated publicly that both Ducey and Sununu would be his preferred candidates.
Hogan last month, meanwhile, hinted to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he, too, has heard from McConnell and Scott about running. Hogan and Ducey are term-limited.
“I think Gov. Hogan is a somewhat unique political force who would perform extremely well,” in a Senate race, said Dirk Haire, chair of the Maryland Republican Party. “If he runs, I think he would win. I know that my views are shared widely across the political leadership spectrum.”
Hogan raised his national profile in recent years by being one of former President Donald Trump’s most prominent Republican critics, blasting him over issues like his pandemic response and his failure to concede the 2020 election.
And while President Joe Biden’s 33-point margin of victory in Maryland last year was drastically higher than in Arizona or New Hampshire, Hogan is now more popular in his blue state than the Democratic president, according to a Goucher College poll released last week.
The survey shows Hogan with a 68 percent approval rating in Maryland, compared to 53 percent for Biden.
Advisers to Ducey, Hogan and Sununu downplayed the notion that Tuesday’s elections might alter the governors’ thinking or make them more inclined to run, saying the surprising results alone are unlikely to heavily influence the governors’ decisions.
Speaking to reporters recently, Scott, the former Florida governor, said the trio of governors still have time to jump into Senate races, noting he didn’t do so until April 2018 ahead of his election that fall.
In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s path to victory involved keeping Trump at arm’s length while remaining in his good graces. That balancing trick won’t be as easy for Ducey and Hogan, who have already crossed the former president. Their strained relationships with Trump, who commands the loyalty of the GOP grassroots base, raise questions about how far Trump would go to try to stop either governor from successfully running for Senate.
For months, Scott has patiently tried to warm Trump to the idea of a Ducey run in numerous meetings, but the former president is having none of it, according to three sources who have been briefed on or have knowledge of the discussions. Trump has publicly criticized the Arizona governor for nearly a year over Ducey’s refusal to embrace false election fraud conspiracies.
The methodical Scott comes armed to his Trump meetings with a three-ring binder, separated by tabs for each race. But when the subject comes to Ducey, Trump has been adamant, the sources say.
“The reality is Trump is just not happy with Ducey and, though he likes Sen. Scott, it’s not enough,” said one of the sources.
The sources say Trump has mused privately about endorsing one of the current Republican candidates in the Arizona Senate race — or even encouraging Republicans not to vote for Ducey — but those familiar with his thinking say he’s just venting.
Ducey has been elected statewide in Arizona three times, first as state treasurer in 2010 before successful gubernatorial runs in 2014 and 2018.
Kirk Adams, the governor’s former chief of staff, suggested that while the Virginia win is momentous for Republicans, Youngkin was merely copying an approach that has worked before in Arizona.
“I think Youngkin followed the Ducey playbook,” Adams said, pointing to Ducey’s 2018 reelection campaign, which centered on education and jobs.
A statewide survey conducted last month by HighGround, a Republican-leaning political consulting firm in Phoenix, put Ducey’s approval rating at 42 percent statewide, roughly the same as that of Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly (Ariz.), who is seeking his first full term after winning a 2020 special election. Ducey’s approval among GOP voters was just shy of 65 percent.
The field of Republicans in the Arizona primary already includes multiple candidates angling for Trump’s endorsement, making it likely that Ducey would face attacks from the right for not sufficiently embracing the former president.
“It’s already a circular firing squad,” said Chuck Coughlin, an Arizona Republican strategist. “That would just walk it in a few more paces.”
Marc Caputo and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.