After far-right gubernatorial hopeful Dan Cox’s win in Maryland’s primary election Tuesday, the approach to the general election for some Republican candidates is simple and typical: “I’ll support my party’s nominee, absolutely,” said state Sen. Bob Cassilly, the Republican nominee for Harford County executive.
But for the many who backed Cox’s opponent, former state commerce secretary Kelly Schulz, strategy is suddenly complicated, and risks higher.
Schulz promised a familiar playbook, one that gave Gov. Larry Hogan historic wins and enduring popularity by emphasizing pocketbook issues and avoiding ultraconservative messaging on topics like abortion, guns and false claims of election fraud. In Cox, Republican candidates are now looking at a leader who has instead made those more extreme positions — ones that polling shows the vast majority of Marylanders reject — the focal points of his campaign.
“I think the mission for the Maryland Republican Party just got a lot more difficult,” said Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican running for reelection.
Marks said he’s “asked every single Cox supporter I’ve met how he wins the general election, and I have yet to hear a specific answer.”
Cox’s positions and endorsement from former President Donald Trump means he faces long odds to become governor of a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans about 2-to-1 and where Trump lost by 33 percentage points in 2020. Former nonprofit executive Wes Moore won the Democratic race Friday after two days of local elections boards counting mail-in ballots.
Cox told The Baltimore Sun on primary night that he can appeal to Marylanders of all parties who are frustrated with Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration and who care about freedoms Cox says have been diminished in the country.
“We ran a race against the establishment of Maryland,” he said. “We ran a positive race to do our best to talk about the issues. And it won and it’s going to win again in November.”
Given that the core of Maryland’s top Republicans backed Schulz, an acolyte of Hogan, the next move for many within the party is fraught.
Cox’s presence at the top of the ballot — and with it, his redirection of a strategy that made Republicans successful statewide — could complicate races for other Republicans who hope to take advantage of an expected wave of GOP gains in national midterm elections in November.
“Down-ballot Republicans are just really in terrible shape,” said Richard Vatz, a Towson University professor of rhetoric and communication.
Vatz, a conservative who is a registered independent, said Cox’s victory is an “unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party.” Some established figures like U.S. Rep. Andy Harris — Maryland’s lone Republican member of Congress — will likely be unaffected, Vatz said, but others who were already facing steep election odds in competitive districts will have a more difficult time with Cox at the top of the ticket.
Republicans have little power in Maryland — aside from their disadvantage in the congressional delegation, they’re outnumbered by a Democratic supermajority in the General Assembly. Holding the governor’s office would provide the GOP broad control over how the state budget is spent, and Republicans argue they are needed as a counter to Democrats’ power.
It might help some down-ballot candidates if Cox focuses on issues like the economy and education, Vatz said. But a long list of Cox’s positions, statements and actions — from calling then-Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor” for not helping Trump overturn the 2020 election to his attempted impeachment of Hogan over the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — will likely doom his and other campaigns, Vatz said.
Cox is seeking a four-year term that begins Jan. 18. The annual salary for the governor next year will be $184,000.
Will down-ballot Republicans support Cox?
The Sun reached out to several dozen Republican candidates, party officials and current or former elected officials about whether they will support the nominee in the state’s highest-profile race this year. The responses received were a mix of enthusiasm, tepid support and outright rejection — while many did not return requests for comment.
“I’ve always said I will support whoever the Republican nominee is. It looks like Cox will be the nominee, so I will support him,” said Carroll County Del. Haven Shoemaker, who is running to be Carroll state’s attorney.
Former Del. Pat McDonough, who is leading the race to be the Republican nominee for Baltimore County executive, thinks Cox will bring out a “tremendous amount of Republicans, which will benefit me.” McDonough supported Cox in the primary.
But, he added, “I’m not going to be running on Dan Cox’s issues. I’m going to be running a very unique campaign.”
Hogan said Wednesday that Cox’s nomination cost the party its chance of winning a third consecutive governor’s race, and will likely make it “very difficult” for other Republicans, too. The governor has called Cox a “conspiracy-theory-believing QAnon whack-job,” and said Thursday it won’t help GOP candidates “to have nutty people at the top of the ticket.”
“I mean, there isn’t going to be much of a campaign,” Hogan told The Sun at an event Thursday. “It’s going to be — the Democratic nominee is going to be the next governor.”
Hogan, who is eyeing a presidential run in 2024, told CNN’s Jake Taper on Sunday that Cox’s primary victory has energized the governor to “want to double down and fight back against what I think is a hostile takeover of the party that I love and that I’ve been involved my whole life.”
Schulz had not conceded by midday Saturday, and her campaign spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment.
Aside from Schulz, the other Republicans in the governor’s race, who combined for less than 4% of the vote, threw their support behind Cox: Joe Werner, a lawyer from Baltimore County, and Robin Ficker, a former lawyer and perennial candidate. Ficker called Cox a “very bright, nice person” who he believes can win in November.
Also expressing support for Cox in the general election was Del. Neil Parrott, who won his Republican primary in Western Maryland for a rematch against Democratic U.S. Rep. David Trone in November. Harris, a six-term Republican who has aligned himself with Trump, said before the primary he would support any Republican nominee.
Dirk Haire, chairman of the state Republican Party, told The Sun he was not concerned about any repercussions Cox’s nomination might have for other GOP candidates.
“The party will support its candidates up and down the ballot,” he said. “We respect the decisions of our Republican primary voters.”
Other GOP candidates declined to share any thoughts on Cox’s candidacy. Barry Glassman, the Harford County executive and GOP nominee for comptroller, responded to questions from The Sun with a statement that avoided any mention of Cox and said Glassman would not be endorsing anyone.
“The number one priority of the comptroller’s office should be protecting and advocating for Maryland taxpayers, not playing politics,” he said.
The office of comptroller will have a salary of $165,000 in 2023.
Michael Peroutka, who won the Republican attorney general primary, did not respond to requests for comment. He is a retired attorney and former Anne Arundel County Council member. Peroutka has advocated for the Southern states to secede as a former member of the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group.
Peroutka’s campaign website prominently features a glowing endorsement he received from Cox. “I look forward to working with him when I am elected Governor,” Cox wrote.
The 2023 salary for the attorney general will be $165,000.
Unifying strategy? Focus on crime, taxes and jobs, not election fraud
The down-ballot effect of Cox’s presence at the top could vary around the state, predicted Brian Griffiths, a voice in state Republican politics who runs a news website called The Duckpin. On the Eastern Shore, for example, a Cox endorsement could be an asset. But elections have showed anti-Trump sentiment among voters can drag down even relatively moderate GOP candidates, such as former Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, who lost in 2018 to Democrat Steuart Pittman, Griffiths said.
But to avoid trouble for Republicans statewide, many in the GOP said Cox should focus on the party’s traditional core principles, including crime, taxes and jobs, rather than false claims about election security, for example. Many candidates are already stressing those other issues, even as they throw weight behind Cox.
Maryland Senate Minority Whip Justin Ready of Carroll County, for instance, said that while he previously endorsed Schulz, he is urging voters to back Cox to counter gas tax increases, inflation and crime.
“The choice is very clear — Maryland Republicans want to reduce the cost of living,” Ready said.
Those have been a successful talking points for the state GOP in the past. The state Republican Party has claimed a majority of gubernatorial elections since 2002, winning three out of five contests.
That left Griffiths questioning why GOP voters would embrace a candidate who diverged from that strategy. A Cox candidacy in the general election squanders lessons gained from past Republican victories, he said.
“Anybody who wants to win in a competitive district needs to run like hell in the other direction from Dan Cox,” said Griffiths, who lost his race Tuesday for Anne Arundel County’s Republican Central Committee.
As Del. Jason Buckel, the leader of the minority caucus in the House of Delegates, looks at the races he and his Republican colleagues face in November, he said he doesn’t believe Cox’s presence will change Republicans’ hopes of riding an expected national wave against Biden’s policies and leadership, at least in reliably red areas of the state.
But in parts where redistricting and demographics mean closer races between Republicans and Democrats for House of Delegates seats, Buckel said Cox’s messaging will have a bigger impact.
“Dan Cox is going to have to go out and prove and demonstrate he can message to and communicate with independent voters, and voters who are not supporters of President Trump,” said Buckel, who represents Western Maryland and endorsed Schulz in the primary.
When Hogan was first elected, a modern high of 50 Republican delegates were sworn into the General Assembly for the same four-year cycle. That caucus shrank by eight in 2018 amid a national wave of anti-Trumpism among voters.
Buckel said he hopes to gain those numbers and more back, though it appears all but impossible for the GOP to reach the 57-seat mark that would take away Democrats’ veto-proof supermajority — and even that would only matter if Cox is able to win the governor’s race. Buckel said he hopes Cox finds a way to make that happen.
Another argument: Far right better than far left
As the party moves forward to the general election, some leaders are leaning on the nation’s deep political polarization, focusing on Cox as a counterweight to a Democratic Party that Republicans cast as too far to the left.
Though Harris did not endorse Cox in the primary, the congressman indicated in a July 1 Facebook post that he would support whoever won.
“Any winner of the Republican primary would be far better for Marylanders as Governor than the ultraliberal extremist likely to emerge from the Democrat primary,” wrote Harris, the state’s only Republican congressman.
Parrott, the Republican nominee in the 6th congressional district, called Cox “a clear contrast to the liberal agenda this coming November,” adding, “Maryland simply cannot afford to elect a Democrat governor this year.”
Former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich said that sort of argument could win more votes from Democrats than many might expect.
“There are a lot of Democrats unhappy with the direction of the country, especially nonprogressive Democrats,” Ehrlich said. “It’s a pretty good year to be a Republican.”
Cox said his campaign’s polling makes him hopeful the strategy will win votes. He said it shows that perhaps more than one in every four Democrats “says they want their freedoms back.”
“They agree that the lockdowns must end,” Cox said. “Well, no one else is saying like I’m saying that we are going to end that.”
But some in the state GOP are soul searching. Griffiths said that with Cox’s win, he has lost faith in the state party, and he told his readers that he is renouncing his affiliation with the Republican Party.
Maryland Policy & Politics
“Just because they set the house on fire doesn’t mean I have to stay in it,” he said.
Buckel said he was disappointed in a narrative that the Republican primary was a proxy war between Hogan and Trump.
“Neither Donald Trump nor Larry Hogan is going to have very much influence or impact on what the state of Maryland looks like come January 2023,” Buckel said. “We need to focus on what really is going to matter for Marylanders in the coming months and years.”
Ehrlich suggested differences between Trump backers and more moderate Republicans are overblown, and that the real division in the party is about personality rather than philosophy.
But there are others who say Cox’s win shows that the party will need to decide what it is to move forward, said WBAL-AM host Clarence Mitchell IV. Mitchell, who called Cox’s win “a setback” for the GOP and predicted Cox will lose, said the party will need new leaders to organize and energize it going forward. Given Hogan’s surprising success in 2014, he said that shouldn’t be seen as far-fetched.
“Is the Republican Party in this state going to be Trump?” Mitchell asked. “Or are they going to be Bob Ehrlich or Larry Hogan or [former U.S. Sen.] Charles ‘Mac’ Mathias?”
Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker, Ngan Ho, Alison Knezevich, Lilly Price and Baltimore Sun Media reporters Brooks DuBose, Jason Fontelieu, Sherry Greenfield and Molly Spence contributed to this article.