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Can a staunch Trump critic rise to the top of the GOP in wake of mixed midterms?

FILE PHOTOS: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (AP Photo/Brian Witte); Former President Donald Trump (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas, File)
FILE PHOTOS: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (AP Photo/Brian Witte); Former President Donald Trump (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas, File)
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A Republican governor who has been a critic of former President Donald Trump says he's encouraged by the outcome of the midterm elections.

And Gov. Larry Hogan, of Maryland, also told CBS News that he’s closer to jumping into the 2024 presidential race based on this election, which he called “a much better night for Republicans running as commonsense conservatives.”

Trump-backed candidates saw mixed results – certainly not the decisive takeover of Congress his supporters were hoping for.

There were wins for Trump’s picks, such as JD Vance taking the Senate seat in Ohio. But there were plenty of losses, highlighted by Dr. Mehmet Oz’s Senate defeat in Pennsylvania.

In Hogan’s state of Maryland, Democrat Wes Moore beat Trump-backed Republican Dan Cox.

Hogan supported another candidate in the state’s gubernatorial primary and refused to campaign for Cox, who aligned himself with the former president.

Hogan told CBS News after the election that he’s eager to lead a movement of "normal Republicans.” He said he previously felt he “was on a lifeboat all by myself” within his party “with everybody on the Trump Titanic."

A University of Maryland politics professor said Hogan might be joined by more conservatives now voicing their disapproval of Trump.

“After this election, there are many more Trump critics surfacing, many more,” James Gimpel said. “This election damaged Trump, without question.”

Gimpel is less optimistic, however, that Hogan has a real shot at winning the White House in two years.

That’s less a question of whether a Trump critic can rise to the top of the Republican Party and more a question of Hogan’s national profile.

“I think it’s pretty well-known that lots of people outside of Maryland have never heard of Larry Hogan,” Gimpel said. “His name doesn’t make much of an impression beyond the borders here.”

It’s true that Hogan isn’t the candidate most Republican voters have in mind for 2024. Only 2% chose him as their top candidate in a recent YouGov survey.

Gimpel said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who easily won reelection this week, was the “big winner” on the Republican side coming out of the midterms.

However, Todd Belt, professor of political management at The George Washington University, said Trump remains “the dominant force within the Republican Party,” even though his political clout “may be a little bit weakened” coming out of the midterms.

So, what does this all mean for the Republicans heading into the next presidential election?

It’s all dependent on Trump’s decision to run, Belt said.

“If he is in the field, he is the prohibitive favorite,” Belt said. “Because he can command all of the media attention, and he can command nearly all of the donors. And the most enthusiastic volunteers in the Republican Party are people attached to him. It’s certainly not a majority of the country, as we found out the other night, but it’s certainly a majority of the Republican Party.”

And if Trump doesn’t run, Belt said his endorsement will carry the day.

Gimpel said he thinks there are now serious questions about Trump’s electability. And he said there might be serious division within the party as to how to proceed in the next election.

“This could either go as a peaceful and smooth transition with relatively few bumps, or it could be a very bumpy ride with a lot of screaming and yelling,” he said of a possible move away from Trump within the party. “And I’m afraid it’s going to be the latter.”

DeSantis is widely speculated to be a White House contender in 2024, as is former Vice President Mike Pence.

Whoever it is, Gimpel said they’ll likely need to be “someone that a lot of the MAGA supporters would see as their second or third choice.”

While Belt still thinks Trump would cruise to his party’s nomination if he runs, he thinks that Trump would be less appealing to moderates and independents in the general election. That could help Democrats and might open the door for a conservative Trump critic like Hogan or Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney to mount an independent campaign.

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“Maybe Larry Hogan was one of the better-known Trump critics prior to the election, but he’ll have an army of company now,” Gimpel said.

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