Republican candidates for Governor, Kelly Schulz and Dan Cox.

National Democrats are stepping in to Maryland’s tight Republican primary for governor, apparently to boost the chances of Dan Cox winning.

With the Maryland primary election season in its final weeks, the Democratic Governors Association has entered the fray, buying TV ad airtime. Here’s what’s going on and why it matters.

What’s happening?

The Democratic Governors Association has bought hundreds of thousands of dollars of air time on TV — and it appears they will use that time to promote the campaign of Republican Dan Cox.

The campaign of Republican Kelly Schulz estimates the buy at more than $1 million between broadcast and satellite TV.

The DGA bought at least $734,000 worth of airtime in the Baltimore TV market between July 5 and July 18, according to reports that stations WBAL, WJZ and WMAR filed with federal regulators. WBFF had not yet posted any reports involving DGA ad purchases.

The DGA created a website that carries a 30-second video called “Meet Dan” that calls him former President Donald J. Trump’s “hand-picked” candidate for governor. The narrator says that Cox worked with Trump to overturn the 2020 election results, would seek to end abortion in Maryland and wants to roll back restrictions on gun ownership.

Officials with the DGA would not confirm how much the ad buy cost or when and where the ads would air.

“Given Cox’s front-runner status and radical MAGA stances, we are starting the general election early and wasting no time to hold him accountable,” Sam Newton, a spokesman for the DGA, said in a statement.

This isn’t the first time the DGA has shown interest in the Republican campaigns. They’ve previously issued statements criticizing Schulz on some of her policy positions. Most recently, the DGA has called Schulz a debate-dodger for largely refusing to appear onstage at debates or forums with the other Republican candidates. Earlier this year, the group paid to poll the race, trumpeting that Cox led the race when respondents were told he was endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

Why support Cox?

Why is the Democratic Governors Association spending money in a Republican primary instead of using it to boost Democratic candidates?

The DGA has placed Maryland as a high-priority state because there’s an opportunity to flip control of the governor’s mansion from Republican (outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan) to Democratic (nominee to be determined).

And polling data suggests that in the general election in November, a Democratic candidate may have a much easier time beating the Trump-endorsed Cox — who traffics in election conspiracy theories — than the Hogan-endorsed Schulz.

In a new survey from Goucher College Poll, Democrats were asked if they’d consider either Schulz or Cox in the general election. When it came to Cox, the Democrats who were polled were clear: 84% wouldn’t consider him. But they offered some room for Schulz, with 34% saying they’d consider her or “it depends.”

Because Democratic voters strongly outnumber Republican voters, a Republican candidate needs to win over Democrats and independents — perhaps 25-30%, according to experts — in order to win statewide office.

The race between Cox and Schulz is a statistical tie, with Cox garnering 25% support to Schulz’s 22%, within the margin of error. Forty-four percent of those polled were still undecided.

The bet the Democratic Governors Association is making is that they could be getting better bang for their buck by trying to defeat Schulz in the primary election, rather than in the general election where she would be trying to follow one of the most consistently popular governors in the country in a state that has elected a Republican in three of the last five elections.

The “Meet Dan” ad has a dramatic narrator and appears on the surface to be designed to raise concerns among Democratic voters who would be opposed to a right-wing, Trump-endorsed candidate. But it will raise awareness about Cox generally and could have the dual purpose of galvanizing Cox’s supporters, who applaud his stances, even if they are out of line with most Maryland voters.

Showdown in sun-baked Annapolis

The DGA ad buy ruffled so many feathers in Republican politics that both the Cox camp and the Schulz camp showed up to the State House in Annapolis on Thursday to spout off on the ad.

Schulz and Hogan called a press conference to denounce Democratic “meddling” in the Republican primary. Schulz said that national Democrats are scared of her because she can win in November. A “fringe candidate” like Cox has no chance, she said.

“The national Democrats can’t stand Governor Hogan and the success that we have had. They can’t stand these Republican legislators that are standing behind me. And, frankly, they can’t stand me because I am a threat,” Schulz said. “I am a threat standing in the way of one-party rule in Annapolis.”

Hogan stood by her side and said Republicans shouldn’t let themselves be tricked by national Democrats. “Maryland voters are much smarter than that,” he said.

As Schulz and others spoke, her supporters held up large campaign signs in an effort to block any view of Cox’s supporters, who stood on the fringes and carried their own signs. Occasionally, Cox’s supporters started up chants but weren’t able to drown out the press conference.

Afterward, Cox told reporters that “this whole thing about the DGA is a farce. It’s a lie.” But when pressed by reporters about what exactly was false, Cox did not offer a clear explanation and pivoted to complaints about the price of gas.

Meanwhile, perennial candidate Robin Ficker, who had just 2% support in a recent poll, also showed up to tell anyone who would listen that he thinks there should be a debate among all the Republican candidates.

Playing with fire?

The Democratic Governors Association is making a bet in Maryland — which means there’s a chance they could lose.

Cox may be the more beatable Republican but the chance of him winning the general election is not zero.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro spent money to support Republican governor candidate Doug Mastriano, who was perceived as the most conservative candidate in the race. Mastriano won the race and polls show the race between he and Shapiro is tight.

The best example of that? Donald J. Trump. Many wrote him off as a non-credible candidate in 2016, but he won that election and served four tumultuous years as president.

Read more: