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Politics

Maryland’s GOP gubernatorial primary pits Hogan-backed candidate against Trump-endorsed rival

Within a two-day period, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox posted two photos of himself with Donald Trump, wrote in a third Facebook post that he was “so honored” to have the former president’s backing, and declared in a fourth that “the power of the Trump endorsement is the shaper of the GOP.”

Meanwhile, he responded to an abortion question by proudly noting that it was Trump’s three U.S. Supreme Court appointees who swung a draft decision that would overturn abortion rights.

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The messaging of Republican opponent Kelly Schulz is very different. She often talks about her goals of lowering taxes and securing “parental rights” in childhood education, and is far more likely to tout her longtime boss — Gov. Larry Hogan — than say anything about the 45th president.

Schulz, 53, and Cox, 47, present contrasting loyalties and styles and represent separate wings of the Maryland GOP. She is aligned with Hogan, a moderate, two-term Republican, and Cox with the right-wing Trump. A four-way July 19 primary will help define the state party’s trajectory and test Trump’s influence.

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Eighteen months after Trump’s reelection defeat, it’s hard to know which of the two Maryland factions — that of Schulz or that of Cox — is considered the establishment, and which is the outlier.

“There isn’t a clear answer to that,” said Republican state Del. Nic Kipke of Anne Arundel County, a leading Schulz supporter. “There is sort of a conflict among Republican voters in the style they want to see in their leaders.”

Cox, a state delegate whose campaign slogans include “Free the Free State,” objected to the 2020 pandemic shutdowns, going so far as to unsuccessfully sue Hogan over a stay-at-home order. He sought this February to have the governor impeached, causing Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci to respond that Cox “has this weird obsession with the governor.”

Kipke, a former House minority leader, said Maryland Republicans mostly agree on fundamental goals — such as lowering taxes — and will ultimately support the candidate with the “best opportunity to win in November.” He believes that is Schulz.

Her pitch is based largely on her claim that she is the campaign’s electable Republican.

The other GOP candidates are Joe Werner, a 62-year-old Baltimore County resident who works as a family and estate planning lawyer in Washington, and Robin Ficker, 79, a frequent candidate for various offices who often runs on anti-tax platforms.

The Democratic field is crowded with 10 candidates, more than half of them relatively well-funded or boasting substantial political resumes.

“It is critical that Marylanders know that if they vote for my opponent in the primary, they may as well be voting for the Democrat,” Schulz said Wednesday in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “Because there is no path to victory other than the path we are on.”

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Her campaign has pointed to Cox’s effort to help organize buses to bring people to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, the day a mob overran the U.S. Capitol. That afternoon, Cox criticized then-Vice President Mike Pence, apparently for not trying to halt a tally of Electoral College votes that favored Democrat Joe Biden over Trump. At 3:21 p.m., more than an hour after rioters breached the Capitol, Cox tweeted: “Pence is a traitor.”

In a statement a few days later, Cox said his group never made it to the Capitol, left early and “of course did not participate in any violence.”

Schulz, a former labor secretary and commerce secretary in Hogan’s administration, chooses her words carefully when describing Cox. She referred to him as “my opponent” or “the delegate” in the interview and only indirectly criticized him.

But Doug Mayer, a former Hogan strategist who is a senior Schulz adviser, said of Cox: “Marylanders will never elect a pathological, lying conspiracy nut who attends QAnon rallies.”

In April, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Cox and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano attended a “Patriots Arise for God and Country” conference in which organizers played a video “claiming the world is experiencing a ‘great awakening’ that will expose ‘ritual child sacrifice’ and a ‘global satanic blood cult.’” Such baseless claims are typical of QAnon, a right-wing, pro-Trump conspiracy theory.

Cox said in an email Tuesday that he was unavailable to be interviewed because he was “fully booked.” He did not make himself available by the end of the week.

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Cox, an attorney who represents parts of Frederick and Carroll counties in the legislature, has said on social media that Trump’s endorsement will carry substantial weight in the primary.

“The Trump wing of the GOP in Maryland is sizable,” said Tom Kennedy, chairman of the Baltimore City Republican Central Committee. “As Republican voters become more aware of Trump’s support of Dan, he’ll surely profit from that endorsement.” Kennedy said he will “gladly support our nominee, whoever he or she may be.”

Cox has publicly complained that Schulz has ducked debating him, and that she has “zero experience debating the Democrats.”

Schulz spokesman Mike Demkiw said in a statement, “Kelly is not going to share a debate stage and give a platform” to Cox. In a further statement, Demkiw cited as “inexcusable and disqualifying” that Cox, a defense attorney, represented a man convicted of a sex offense involving a child, defended his representation of that client and maintains his client is innocent. Cox talked about it last month on WFMD-AM after Schulz raised the case on the air. “This person claims innocence and had plenty of witnesses,” he said.

A Frederick County resident, Schulz served one term in the House of Delegates and was about to start a second when Hogan appointed her labor secretary in 2015. Later shifting to the Department of Commerce, where her agency was in charge of administering hundreds of millions of dollars aimed at helping business during the pandemic, she resigned this year to run for governor.

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She has surrounded herself with people who’ve been in Hogan’s orbit during his two terms in Annapolis. Her running mate is Jeff Woolford, who was Hogan’s chief medical officer and assistant secretary at the Maryland Department of Health, among other roles.

Schulz would be Maryland’s first female governor.

Cox’s running mate is Gordana Schifanelli, a Queen Anne’s County lawyer.

With Cox celebrating the Supreme Court’s draft opinion, abortion may emerge as an issue in the primary, as well as the general election. A majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices appear to favor overturning Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed a right to the procedure.

Cox said in a statement that Roe v. Wade was “faulty,” and suggested that he hopes the court follows through and strikes it down. Schulz “is personally pro-life,” her campaign statement said, but would not move to change current Maryland law, under which abortion is legal.

Abortion can be a tricky issue for a Republican in a blue state that has just expanded abortion access. Schulz is likely to try to stick to the same popular messaging that Hogan focused on, according to political observers. Hogan, too, has said he personally opposes abortion, but has repeatedly called it “settled law” in the state.

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“She will focus singularly on statewide issues. She’s going to talk about crime, she’s going to talk about schools and she’s going to talk about taxes and the economy and that will be the single driving focus,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College.

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Hogan, who is term-limited from seeking reelection, won twice in a state in which Democratic voters outnumber Republicans more than 2-1.

Hogan was the first Republican Maryland governor to win reelection since Theodore McKeldin in 1954. He has sought to appeal to crossover Democrats by railing against excessive partisanship, which he calls “toxic.” He hasn’t ruled out running for president in 2024.

Hogan frequently sparred with Trump, saying in 2020 that the Republican brand could be damaged if Trump continued to allege voter fraud in the presidential election when there’s no evidence for it. But some of the state’s top Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, are longtime Trump backers.

Hogan endorsed Schulz in March, calling her the only candidate able to “continue the legacy” of his two terms in office.

“The governor’s prestige is at stake” in trying to help Schulz succeed, said John Dedie, a political science professor at Community College of Baltimore County and longtime Maryland politics observer. “The election will be Hogan’s ‘third term.’”

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Schulz had a fundraising advantage as the year began. Her campaign raised $1.5 million and had $1 million on hand at the end of the last filing period on Jan. 12, according to online state records. Contributors include Kipke, Baltimore business owner Edward St. John, and Chris Cavey, who is Hogan’s appointments secretary and a former state delegate representing Baltimore County.

Cox’s campaign had raised nearly $400,000 and had $271,638 on hand. His donors include former state Del. Carmen Amedori of Carroll County, and the campaign committees of former U.S. House nominee Kim Klacik of Baltimore and former state Del. Warren Miller, who represented parts of Carroll and Howard counties.

For the record

This article has been updated to clarify candidate Kelly Schulz’s stated reasons for refusing to debate candidate Dan Cox.


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