Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Thursday that he's not launching a primary challenge against President Donald Trump unless the president's political standing within his own party weakens dramatically.
Hogan, who was elected to his second term last fall, has emerged as the new best hope of a small group of so-called Never Trump Republicans now seeking a prominent GOP official to fight Trump for his party's presidential nomination in 2020. In a Thursday interview with The Associated Press, the 62-year-old Republican raised serious concerns about Trump's leadership but said he had no interest in a "kamikaze mission."
"My goal is not to just make the incumbent president lose in the general election. I'm not going to do that," Hogan said. "If they're looking for someone just to be a spoiler or to throw myself on a grenade to help someone else, that's not me. Somebody else might be motivated that way. But I've got a state to run."
Hogan's position is consistent with a handful of prominent Republican Trump critics, including former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who have lashed out at the substance and style of the Trump presidency but have been unwilling to challenge Trump so long as he remains overwhelmingly popular within his own party. Roughly 8 in 10 Republicans approve of Trump's job performance, though his standing among all voters has hovered at or below 40 percent for most of his presidency.
The one Republican exception, so far, is former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, a 73-year-old who has been out of office for more than two decades and who served as the vice presidential nominee on the Libertarian ticket in 2016. Weld launched a Republican exploratory committee earlier in the week.
While Hogan declared he was not "actively" forming a primary bid of his own, he left open the possibility should Trump's standing change. He pointed to the upcoming release of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation as a possible catalyst.
"I don't have the inside scoop on what it's going to say," Hogan said. "But if there was damaging information, if ... some serious charges come out or it becomes worse than it is today, and he took a hit in the polls, then I think all bets are off."
Hogan, along with most of the nation's governors, was set to meet with Trump in Washington this weekend for a gathering of the National Governors Association.
The meeting "should be interesting," Hogan said with a chuckle, indicating he would tell Trump directly, if asked, that he was not ruling out a primary challenge.
Hogan will likely accept an invitation to appear in the key early voting state of New Hampshire once Maryland's legislative session is over later in the spring, an aide confirmed. The Republican governor noted that he has been meeting with donors along with other Republicans encouraging him to take on Trump.
Pressed on a timeline for a potential run should Trump's situation change, Hogan said that "most successful launches are late summer or in the fall."
Even if he doesn't run, he vowed to be a vocal Trump critic when circumstances called for it.
"There are very few Republicans willing to speak out," he said. "And now I'm willing."
Primary challengers to incumbent presidents have never been successful at stealing the nomination in the modern era, but embarrassing intraparty contests have proved to be the making of one-term leaders, seeding weaknesses that were later exploited by a general-election rival.
Pat Buchanan's Republican campaign against President George H.W. Bush in 1992 focused in part on highlighting Bush's broken pledge not to raise taxes, a vulnerability that dogged Bush throughout the campaign. In a show of party unity, Buchanan was awarded the opening-night keynote at that year's GOP convention. He delivered a "culture war" speech that Bush loyalists believed contributed to his loss.
Trump's campaign has taken extraordinary steps in cementing control over the Republican National Committee and the broader nomination process as it seeks to minimize the risk of any potential challenger doing the same to the president. That state-by-state effort has included weighing in on local party races and the convention delegate selection process. The campaign is also closely monitoring discussions in some states, including South Carolina, to do away with their 2020 Republican primary contests entirely.
"I've never seen anything like it, and I've been around a long time," Hogan said, seizing in particularly on calls to cancel the South Carolina primary. "It's undemocratic."
He continued: "Why go to these great lengths unless they're really worried that something might happen?"