Politics

A Proxy Battle for the Soul of the Maryland Republican

Not pictured: the Democratic Governors Association.

An illustration of a blue crab holding Donald Trump and Dan Cox in one pincer, and Larry Hogan and Kelly Schulz in the other.
Crab grab. Marylandstater/Wikipedia, rypson/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Maryland State Archives, and Ronda Churchill/AFP via Getty Images.

In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, Maryland Republicans have a shot to win their third straight gubernatorial election. But only, probably, if they stick with a moderate.

Perhaps that is why the Democratic Governors Association, a national organization, has spent over a million dollars airing an “attack” ad aimed at boosting the Trump-backed candidate in the primary. If that guy takes the nomination, it’ll be smoother sailing for the Democratic nominee come autumn. At least that’s the hope.

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This sort of meddling is quickly becoming Democrats’ trademark move; they’ve also sought to elevate weaker opposition in Arizona, Illinois, and Pennsylvania and elsewhere this election cycle. In Maryland, however, the DGA’s ad buy has dwarfed all of the media spending the Trump-backed nominee, Dan Cox, has even done for his own campaign. The “anti-Cox” attack ad warns of how close Cox is to Trump, and of how he is strictly anti-abortion and opposed to gun regulations. “Dan Cox,” the ad intones: “Too close to Trump. Too conservative for Maryland.”

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National Democrats, in other words, are threatening Trump voters in Maryland with a good time—in the hope that they will nominate the weaker of two general election candidates. Cox, whose campaign did not respond to an interview request, seemed so baffled by the episode that he resorted to doing what he does best: waving his arms and implying a conspiracy was afoot.

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How did we get here?

Currently, Maryland is governed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate whose approval ratings remain high among Republicans, independents, and Democrats alike. Hogan, now term-limited, has endorsed state cabinet member Kelly Schulz as his heir apparent. She’s trying to run a campaign focused on issues of bipartisan concern like public safety, inflation, and education, while staying away from the culture-war flights of fancy Republicans in redder states enjoy.

In two of the last three pro-Republican midterm cycles—2002 and 2014—Republican gubernatorial candidates have been able to break through in Maryland, which remains a very blue state. And Hogan won reelection in 2018, in a pro-Democratic cycle, against an unapologetically progressive Democratic candidate.

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But alas, Trump hates Larry Hogan, who’s maintained his standing in Maryland not just by distancing himself from the ex-president, but disparaging him whenever the opportunity presents itself.

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This hurts Trump’s feelings. So the former president has thrown his backing in the GOP primary behind Cox, a freshman state delegate and a proudly MAGA-infused “stolen election” evangelist. Some of his bona fides include: organizing buses for the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6; tweeting that Vice President Mike Pence was a “traitor” that same afternoon; and accusing Hogan (and Schulz) of having spurious ties to the Chinese Communist Party. He sought to impeach Hogan over his COVID-19 restrictions.

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He’s best viewed as Maryland’s version of Doug Mastriano, the similarly conspiratorial Republican gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania. The two are chummy, have endorsed each other, and both appeared at an infamous far-right, QAnon-heavy conference in Pennsylvania early this year.

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“It doesn’t seem that Cox is particular interested in any of the finesse that you need as a Republican to win in Maryland,” said Mileah Kromer, a pollster and director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College, putting it gently.

Trump has never polled above single digits among Maryland Democrats, and a Republican candidate needs the support of about 25 to 33 percent of Democrats to win a statewide election in Maryland, according to Kromer.

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“There’s just not any evidence to suggest that a Trump-aligned candidate can do that,” she said.

The scant polling from earlier this summer showed a close race between Cox and Schulz, with most Republican voters undecided. But the DGA’s million dollar ad spend has turned a relatively sleepy, under-the-radar primary into fracas both within the state and in national political media.

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“This whole thing about the DGA is a farce,” Cox told reporters about the boost-in-disguise he has been getting. “It’s a lie. I’m calling for an investigation of how (Schulz) knew what the DGA was doing.”

The Schulz campaign and its allies also chose to amplify the Democratic incursion, arguing that it proved the point that Democrats are scared of running against Schulz, so they dreamed of facing Cox, instead.

“Any ad that you see paid for by the Democrat Governors Association is an ad meant to trick you, because they think that you can be manipulated and fooled,” Schulz said at a press conference featuring Hogan on June 30, shortly after the ad was released.

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“They’re afraid they’ll lose to me in November,” she said. “They’re afraid of losing four out of the last six governor’s races here in Maryland. And because of this, they’re willing to support a lying, conspiracy theorist like Dan Cox, who is a danger to our party and our state, just so they can take back the Maryland Statehouse.”

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She’s not wrong. But will it work? Is the Democratic party ploy, along with Trump’s regularly emailed thrashings of Hogan and “low-energy RINO” Kelly Schulz, enough to get Cox through the Republican primary?

Doug Mayer, a senior advisor to the Schulz campaign and a former Hogan aide, doesn’t think the ruse will pay off. “I would suspect,” he said, “that Maryland Republican voters are a little more sophisticated than the DGA gives them credit for.”

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Kromer pointed out that Cox, even with the boosting from Trump and Democrats, just doesn’t have the network or campaign infrastructure Schulz has.

“Dan Cox—I think he has one endorsement from the legislature? In which he serves? Everybody else has endorsed Kelly Schulz,” Kromer said late last week. The Republicans at the local level are “going to be telling their networks, ‘Hey, unless you want one-party Democratic governance, you’re going to want to vote for Kelly Schulz.’”

Ultimately, it’s a test of the psychology of the median Maryland Republican.

Yes, Republicans have held the governor’s mansion for 12 of the last 20 years. But before that, Republicans hadn’t won a governor’s race there since Spiro Agnew did in the 1960s. Democrats have supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature. It may not be an activist progressive state, but it sure is a blue state. And Maryland Republican voters, after decades in the minority, know they shouldn’t bite off more than the state can chew.

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“I think Maryland Republicans, especially in a low-turnout primary, which we’re experiencing right now, the people who are turning out are the people like my dad,” Mayer said. “Trump guy, Hogan guy. He gets annoyed at Hogan, but knows just how much the governor has stopped and how much good he’s done over the last eight years. And more importantly than that, he knows what kind of Republican can actually win here.”

We’ll know soon—but not too soon. Maryland won’t even start counting mail-in ballots until Thursday, and those mail-in ballots are expected to be strong pro-Schulz. Surely, the Trump-endorsed candidate who believes the 2020 election was stolen will handle that gracefully.

Update, July 20, 2022: This article has been updated to clarify that Democrats aren’t spending money to elevate a Trump-backed candidate in Arizona but are merely using similar tactics.

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