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Non-Trump Republicans are reminded that the party isn’t really theirs

For eight years, Larry Hogan was a Republican governor of a heavily blue state. This is a unique role in American politics, one of the last remaining places where the partisan bifurcation that defines national politics fails to draw sharp boundaries. Hogan won election and reelection in Maryland even as the state voted for Democrats for president and the Senate by wide margins.

Hogan’s announcement that he would seek the Senate seat held by retiring Sen. Ben Cardin (D) offered a unique opportunity for his party. With the Senate evenly divided between the parties, any gain of a seat is hugely important — and here was a chance to potentially lock up a blue seat for at least six years. One would justifiably assume that the national Republican Party was thrilled about Hogan’s candidacy.

Perhaps it was, until Hogan did the one thing you’re not allowed to do as a Republican: criticize Donald Trump, even obliquely.

Hogan had criticized Trump before, writing an essay for this newspaper in which he faulted Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. That was way back in 2020, though. When he offered new — milder! — apostasy last week, the backlash was sharp.

You will recall the recent news that Trump was convicted on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, part of an effort to cover up a hush money payment made to an adult-film actress before the 2016 election. In the estimation of most Americans, including most Democrats and independents, this was the right verdict for the jury in Manhattan to draw. Meaning that it was almost certainly the collective view of Marylanders that Trump should have been found guilty.

As news broke that the jury had reached a verdict, Hogan offered thoughts that were a case study in careful politicking: not celebrating the prospect of Trump’s guilt but rejecting the sort of hyperventilating excoriations coming from Trump and his allies.

“At this dangerously divided moment in our history, all leaders — regardless of party — must not pour fuel on the fire with more toxic partisanship,” his message on social media read in part. “We must reaffirm what has made this nation great: the rule of law.”

Trumpworld was furious. That included Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

“I don’t support what he just said there,” Lara Trump said when presented with Hogan’s comments. “I think it’s ridiculous.”

She added that Hogan “doesn’t deserve the respect of anyone in the Republican Party at this point and, quite frankly, anybody in America, if that’s the way you feel. That’s very upsetting to hear that.”

Lara Trump is not just a Trump, of course. She is also the co-chair of the Republican Party, the group committed to ensuring that Hogan wins. When CNN host Kasie Hunt pressed her on whether Hogan’s comments meant he wouldn’t receive that support, Lara Trump hedged: “I will get back to you on all the specifics monetarily.”

Lara Trump has not held her position for long. She comes to the party by way of being a verbose advocate for her father-in-law. She is not practiced in walking the line between fervent defense of Trump and protecting the institutional needs of the party. But then, it’s not clear that her mandate at the party is to worry much about non-Trump candidates.

“My number one goal is making sure that Donald Trump is the 47th president,” she told the Associated Press last month. If that means prioritizing Trump’s argument that the New York verdict was a repulsive abuse of power over Hogan’s tailored effort to appeal to Maryland voters? Well, too bad for Larry Hogan.

It’s very much a reflection of how the GOP more broadly has reacted to Donald Trump’s ongoing centrality to Republican politics. There remain Republicans who are skeptical of Trump, voting against him in the presidential primaries and telling pollsters either that they won’t vote for him in November or that they are wary of doing so.

In recent Fox News polling, a quarter of Republicans who indicated that they planned to vote for Trump in November said they were doing so mostly in opposition to President Biden — suggesting that their support for Trump is not rooted in the sort of fervency that their party’s co-chair demands. No worries, though: Three-quarters of Republicans said their vote was centered on Trump.

In the wake of the verdict, YouGov conducted polling for CBS that included a question about the need for Republicans to remain loyal to Trump. Four in 5 Republicans said it was at least somewhat important for them to do so, including more than two-thirds who said it was very important. Far fewer said it was not important.

In Maryland, Hogan enjoys high favorability ratings overall and from members of his party, according to Washington Post-University of Maryland polling released in March. In that poll, he led the eventual Democratic nominee Angela Alsobrooks by double digits, partly on the strength of his overwhelming support from Republicans.

But did you hear that his response to the New York verdict wasn’t a full-throated rejection of the possibility that the trial was fair? Maybe he isn’t a real Republican after all.

Trump has long defined “Republican” as meaning “Trump loyal”; it’s why he deploys the term “RINO” or Republican-in-name-only as a descriptor for his critics so frequently. By clearing the path for his daughter-in-law to serve as co-chair of the party, Trump helped cement that view as an institutional one for the GOP. By extension, he helped make non-Trump Republicans more obviously unwelcome in the party — even if they potentially represented the seat needed for the party to gain control of the Senate.

Lara Trump’s criticism was an odd comment for a party chair to make. It was a very typical comment for a Trump loyalist to make. And in the revamped Republican Party, Trump, not the party, is the institution that is first in line for protection and advocacy.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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