Maryland Republicans’ choice of candidates in Tuesday’s primary election was also a choice about the direction of the party: Was it still the party of outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan’s pragmatic conservatism, or had the cultural clashes and demagoguery that has swept other states taken control here?
The nomination of an election conspiracy theorist for governor and a one-time Southern secessionist for attorney general delivered a clear answer.
Republicans have won three of Maryland’s last five gubernatorial elections, but the voters’ choices have left some Republicans and experts questioning how viable the party can be going forward in a state where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 numbers advantage alongside a significant chunk of independent voters. And Democrats are sharpening their message, hoping for an easy path to reclaiming the governor’s mansion in the fall.
“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” predicted Brian Griffiths, a Republican blogger who has been a leading voice among Maryland Republicans.
Maryland Republicans nominated Dan Cox for governor, a one-term state delegate from Frederick County who is perhaps best known for calling then-Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor” for not halting the certification of the 2020 election results on Jan. 6, 2021. Cox was present in Washington that day, but said he left before a mob overran the U.S. Capitol building.
Cox won all but two Maryland counties Tuesday — Howard and Kent — with mail ballots still to count starting Thursday.
Cox is not only an election conspiracy theorist, but also has blasted public health measures related to the coronavirus, claims schools are indoctrinating children, and was unsuccessful in both suing and trying to impeach Hogan over his handling of the pandemic.
In four years in the Maryland General Assembly, he’s sponsored two bills that passed: one creating a task force to study criminal penalties and another requiring courthouses to post a sign advertising a human trafficking hotline.
Cox will lead the Republican ticket in the fall along with attorney general nominee Michael Peroutka, a former member of the white nationalist group League of the South, who promises to “bring God back” to Maryland.
The chances of either Cox or Peroutka winning in November appear to be slim. In order for Republicans to win statewide office in Maryland, they must gain support from a significant chunk of Democrats and independent voters.
Hogan, who is among the most popular governors in the country, used a moderate-sounding campaign pitch to do just that to win two terms in office. Cox and Peroutka are far from moderate.
Already, Hogan is vowing not to support or vote for Cox, according to the governor’s spokesman, Mike Ricci.
Hogan has called Cox a “QAnon whack job” whom he would never support.
Cox did not respond to a request for comment from The Banner on Wednesday.
Cox has promoted 2020 election conspiracy theories and previously told The Banner that he believes the election was “stolen” from former President Trump by unknown actors. He also has questioned the 2020 results in Maryland, and as recently as Tuesday posted a video on Facebook questioning whether Maryland officials were using provisional ballots properly.
After all that, when Cox was asked Tuesday night if the election results were accurate, he responded: “Well, it sure looks like it to me.”
Maryland Republican Party Chairman Dirk Haire said it was too soon to write off Cox as a viable candidate. Most of the information that voters have heard about him have come from Democrat-funded TV ads, he said.
“I think he would govern as a typical, conservative Republican,” Haire said. “I think a lot of voters in Maryland, regardless of their party affiliation, agree with lower taxes and parents in control of schools. I certainly hope those are the type of themes Dan will be talking about in the fall.”
Griffiths, who pens the conservative Duckpin blog, was so frustrated with Cox and the Trump wing of the party that he blasted out an email to his subscribers announcing he would quit the Republican Party.
He remains shocked that the Maryland Republican Party has steered so far into Trumpism. “A year ago, I thought it was all a lark by Dan Cox, an egomaniac who thinks he’s important and thinks he’s brilliant — and is neither,” Griffiths said.
Griffiths worries that Cox’s candidacy could drag down more mainstream Republicans who had a chance at winning seats as county executives, delegates and state senators.
With Cox as the face of the Republican Party, “our lord and savior Jesus Christ could run as a Republican in Maryland and not win,” Griffiths said.
Cox beat Kelly Schulz, a former state commerce secretary who had been endorsed by Hogan. One of Schulz’s advisors, Republican strategist Doug Mayer, was so frustrated by voters going for Cox that he compared it to the 1978 mass murder-suicide of cult members in Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking poison.
“The Maryland Republican Party got together and committed ritualized mass suicide. The only thing missing was Jim Jones and a glass of Kool-Aid,” Mayer told The Baltimore Banner on Election Night. “I hope it was a good party.”
It was clear that the most enthusiastic supporters of Trump showed up to cast their votes for Cox, who was endorsed by the former president, said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College in Towson.
“This let Cox win the primary, but it won’t change the general. Trump was able to boost Dan Cox across the finish line, but at the end of the day, it’s still the Hogan coalition that wins Maryland,” Kromer said.
An overwhelming majority of Democrats polled by the Goucher College Poll last month — 84% — said they would not even consider voting for Cox if he were the nominee. That makes it near-impossible for Cox to win in the fall, almost assuring a Democratic victory.
“Cox’s November path is a murky one,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. “He must either reject his own strong GOP beliefs and move to the center, or hope Democratic and independent votes are depressed in the fall.”
It’s not clear yet who Cox will face in the general election. With early voting and most election day votes tallied, author and former nonprofit executive Wes Moore had 37% of the Democratic vote, followed by former Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez at 27% and Comptroller Peter Franchot at 20%.
Waiting for the general election are also Libertarian Party candidate David Lashar, Green Party candidate Nancy Wallace and independent candidates David Harding and Kyle Sefcik.
Maryland Democrats were preparing campaign plans for both Cox and Schulz. State party Chairwoman Yvette Lewis said Cox’s win confirms that Republicans are the party of Trump more than the party of Hogan — even though that’s likely not a winning strategy.
“The state of Maryland is not Trump country here,” Lewis said. “We feel confident that we will be able to show the Republicans in Maryland are closely aligned with Donald Trump. Donald Trump lost Maryland by huge numbers, and that’s just not who we are.”
Cox, Peroutka and Barry Glassman, the Republican nominee for state comptroller, are “three MAGA peas in a pod,” the state party said.
Glassman, currently the Harford County executive, pushed back against that characterization. He said he’s running his own race and won’t campaign with or endorse other Republicans.
“Folks that have worked with me for 30 years know who I am. I have my own brand. I am certainly not three peas in a pod with the other two fellows,” Glassman said in a phone interview from Detroit, where he’s attending a conference.
National Democrats immediately pounced on Cox’s nomination, with the Democratic Governors Association dropping a new video ad that claims Cox wants to turn Maryland into “MAGALAND.”
The Democratic Governors Association already spent more than $2 million in the primary, running TV and internet ads and mailing out flyers alleging that Cox is too extreme and too conservative for Maryland. Critics have argued Democrats’ strategy of promoting Republicans they believe are unelectable, like Cox, helped lead to Trump’s 2016 victory and promotes Cox’s beliefs to a wider audience.
Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, meanwhile, watched with disappointment as he saw the Republican Party swing so far to the extreme. Ferguson is a Democrat leading a Democrat-dominated chamber, but takes pride in working collegially with Republicans and understanding their needs.
“It saddens me that this is the result for the Maryland Republican Party,” Ferguson said. “I think a two-party system is a positive thing, it’s the competition of ideas. I am surprised that the results landed this way. I thought it was possible, but I’m still surprised.”
Ferguson said he worries that the Republican Party in Maryland is now a platform for “the most extreme voices of the political spectrum.”
“The brand of Republicanism that we’ve seen from the prior president and the prior president’s endorsed candidates is a no-compromise, facts-don’t-matter approach,” Ferguson said. “I think that is dangerous for democracy.”
Baltimore Banner reporters Sophie Kasakove and Emily Sullivan contributed to this article.