Kent County resident Shawn Poulson said the choice in July’s Republican primary for governor came down to a question: did voters want a third term of GOP Gov. Larry Hogan in Kelly Schulz, his hand-picked successor, or did they want something new?
Poulson, a 45-year-old who chairs Kent County’s Republican Central Committee, said he went with the latter and voted for state Del. Dan Cox.
“I think a lot of people saw that Kelly Schulz would just be Hogan 2.0 and not an upgrade,” he said.
Cox, a constitutional lawyer in his first term representing Carroll and Frederick counties in the House of Delegates bested the former state labor and commerce secretary by more than 25,000 votes. Cox, the more conservative of the two, largely campaigned on the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, opposing COVID-related restrictions and abortion and supporting Second Amendment rights, while Schulz pushed her ties to Hogan, plans to fight crime and opposition to raising taxes.
Many saw the race as a proxy war between Hogan and Trump.
For Poulson the choice wasn’t difficult, although Kent was one of the few jurisdictions Schulz won.
“I’ve met very few of them,” Poulson said of Schulz voters.
But across the state, Maryland Republicans disappointed in Hogan’s rebukes of Trump, his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his willingness to compromise with a Democratic legislature said their vote for Cox served as a referendum on the state’s first two-term Republican governor in more than 60 years. Others said, in not voting for Hogan’s pick, they weren’t necessarily rejecting Hogan’s brand of conservatism as much as they were embracing a more conservative one.
On issues that both Cox and Schulz prioritized — such as protecting certain individual rights, or what lessons are being taught in schools — Poulson preferred Cox’s positions. Both Cox and Schulz are grounded in Republican values, Poulson said, but “when the Trump endorsement came in, that’s just kind of how the cookie crumbled.”
Benjamin Melusky, an assistant political science professor at Old Dominion University, has been watching Trump’s influence in primary races across the country and has been seeing what he describes as a “disconnect” among Republican voters, including in Maryland. Hogan has been the most successful Maryland Republican in decades, he said, but that still may not be enough.
“The diehard conservatives are gonna look out and say, ‘Yes, (Hogan) was too moderate for us.’ But at the end of the day, he’s closer to you as a moderate Republican than whatever Democrat gets elected,” Melusky said. “You kind of need to take your victories where you get them.”
Over the next month, Melusky said he will be watching to see if and how the Cox campaign will pivot to the center.
In order to win a third consecutive gubernatorial election, Republicans have some work to do. Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1 in the state, requiring GOP candidates to win over a significant number of Democrats and independents.
And the state party’s current leader, Hogan, has said he will not support Cox’s campaign.
“He’s not qualified to be governor,” Hogan told CNN’s Jake Tapper on television the Sunday after the primary.
After Hogan made that statement, state Republican leaders have tried to pull the party back together, and called for resounding support of nominees up and down the ballot.
“This is no time for division — the stakes are too high, and we urge all of our nominees, unsuccessful primary candidates, and their supporters to unify and support all of our Republican candidates on to victory in November,” Dirk Haire, the state GOP chair, said in an Aug. 1 news release.
Cal Steuart, chair of the Calvert County Republican Central Committee, said conservative Republicans have had “a difficult eight years” under Hogan, whom he called a “middle-of-the-road Republican,” but wasn’t prepared to list specific issues with which he disagreed with Hogan.
“We support Mr. Cox who we believe is much more conservative and results-oriented than the competition, Ms. Schulz,” he said, speaking on behalf of the committee.
Calvert County farmer Earl “Buddy” Hance is hopeful for another Republican win, but said Maryland’s Democratic electorate casts a long shadow over November.
“If all the Republicans (in the state) vote for Mr. Cox, it’s still not enough,” said Hance, who is president of the Board of County Commissioners.
Hance, who served as Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s agriculture secretary from 2009 to 2015, said compromise is a necessity for Maryland Republicans. A Cox administration will likely face a Democratic supermajority in the General Assembly.
“I don’t know how we get back on a course of working together, compromise, listening to one another,” Hance said. “We are not there today.”
Republican Todd Logsdon of Allegany County voted for Schulz. He said he doesn’t see Cox’s nomination as a rejection of Hogan but rather “trying to continue moving in the conservative direction.”
“I think it’s more of an embrace of something that is fundamental or principled,” he said. “Governor Hogan, has been, by and large, satisfactory to a lot of Republicans in the party.”
The 32-year-old, who serves on the county’s Republican Central Committee and just lost his primary bid for a seat on the Board of County Commissioners, acknowledged he and his colleagues are concerned whether Cox can win crossover votes.
“The number one concern is Cox’s electability,” Logsdon said.
“Wes Moore is going to have an easier time appealing to the middle,” he said, but “Republicans will not vote for Moore, rank and file, even Schulz supporters will vote for Cox.”
Queen Anne’s County Republican Jim Goddard said he was “very disappointed with the results” of the primary.
The 62-year-old truck driver said he’s “not a Hogan fan,” as he felt Hogan in recent years had turned his attention away from state business to explore a presidential run. But he wasn’t going to vote for Cox to voice his disapproval.
“I thought (Schulz) had the best interests of Marylanders at heart rather than self interest,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t vote for Cox; I thought he was more in it for himself.”
“All he’s run on is that he’s affiliated with Trump. That doesn’t mean I’m going to vote for a person just because Trump endorsed them,” Goddard said. “I’m going to vote for the person that’s going to do what’s best for the state of Maryland.”
Goddard’s not planning to vote for the Democratic candidate Wes Moore in the general, because a Democratic win will result in “more tax and spend,” he said. But Cox needs a plan and not just talking points on a campaign mailer, he said.
“He’s going to have to get out there and fight and let people know what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it,” Goddard said. “If not, he’s gonna get run over like a bulldozer.”