First, Dan Cox sued Gov. Larry Hogan and failed. Then he tried to impeach the governor and failed. Now Cox is campaigning to become governor himself.
The Republican delegate from Frederick County is betting big that voters in his party are fans of former President Donald J. Trump and want the same brand of politics leading Maryland — not the more modest and measured conservatism that Marylanders have seen from Hogan, who is finishing his second term.
To understand Cox’s campaign strategy, look no further than his email blasts to supporters that are often sent from “Trump Endorsed Dan Cox” and prominently feature a photo of the candidate and the ex-president smiling and flashing a thumb’s up. He is a full-throated supporter of unfounded conspiracy theories that Trump should have won the 2020 election, which Cox says was “stolen” from him.
“When they see that I’m not establishment, when they hear that I’ve been endorsed by President Trump — in my party, that’s an 80 percent positive,” Cox said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner.
Trump has not come to Maryland to campaign for Cox, but the former president called into a Cox rally in Hampstead over the weekend, offering his support for the candidate and firing up the crowd.
“Dan is MAGA all the way and I say that very strongly,” Trump said in the call. Trump said Cox is “a great, courageous patriot” who he predicted would win the Republican primary.
Cox, 47, is one of four Republicans vying for their party’s nomination for governor in this summer’s primary election, alongside 10 Democrats. All are hoping to succeed Hogan, who is term-limited.
Cox’s main rival in the primary is Kelly Schulz, a former secretary of labor and commerce under Hogan. She’s promoting herself as a natural successor to the popular outgoing governor and distancing herself from Cox’s wing of the party.
Schulz has been purposefully avoiding engaging directly with her rival, saying she won’t share a stage with Cox — who works as an attorney — because he represented a convicted sex offender in court. But it also has the effect of not giving Cox exposure and legitimacy by appearing alongside him.
Cox’s loyalty to Trump may be a turn off to some Republican voters, but the ex-president remains popular among the majority of them, according to polls.
A Goucher College Poll survey this month of 508 Maryland Republicans found that 78% of respondents had a favorable or very favorable view of Trump, while 67% said the same of Hogan.
Our “path forward is the fact that we have President Trump’s endorsement in the Maryland GOP,” Cox said. “It’s a huge issue right now around the GOP, because there is so much regret that we don’t have him in office.”
At this point in the race, Cox has 25% support of likely Republican voters who were polled by Goucher College, compared to 22% for Schulz. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4.8%, making the race a statistical tie. Still, 44% of those polled were undecided, opening a lot of room for either Cox or Schulz to make a move.
Cox has significantly less money than Schulz and his campaign appears to be led largely by volunteers and his family. Heading into the final weeks of the campaign, Schulz had more than four times as much cash on hand as Cox, and enough to keep TV ads on air to boost her profile.
Cox has offered full-fledged support not only for the twice-indicted, controversial former president, but he also has backed Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election against Democratic President Joe Biden.
Cox traveled to Pennsylvania — which Trump lost — to engage in post-election review efforts.
Cox flatly says: “I believe the election was stolen.”
Asked who stole the election and why, Cox doesn’t have straight answers.
“I think there was a concerted effort, and I’m not sure who the actors were,” Cox said, referencing a film that uses flimsy evidence to allege that thousands of “mules” were paid to illegally collect and submit ballots in swing states.
“There is a fraud afoot that is clear, provable and demonstrable in a court of law,” Cox said. The Goucher College Poll found 57% of Maryland Republicans surveyed believed Biden won due to voter fraud.
Cox is so firm in his point of view that he boarded a bus with other Western Maryland Republicans and headed to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021 as the election was being certified by Congress.
Cox said that while he rode down to Washington as part of a bus convoy, he did not organize the buses, as has been reported. And he said he only went to hear Trump speak, and left before people stormed the Capitol building, disrupting the election certification.
Amid the events of the day, Cox posted on Twitter that Vice President Mike Pence was a “traitor.”
Cox said he believed that Pence was going to pause the certification of the election because he had “evidence of fraud” and needed to “send those fraudulently questionable electors back to the states to get to the bottom of it.”
“He made a complete about-face without telling anybody, shocked everyone, and certified knowingly fraudulent electors,” Cox said. “And so that was a betrayal of the American trust.”
The Twitter post was his way of expressing his disappointment, and not a personal attack on the vice president, Cox said.
Cox has also been vocal about his disappointment in, and disapproval of, Hogan, who is finishing his second term in office with high approval ratings from both Democrats and Republicans.
In interviews and at campaign appearances, Cox rails against Hogan’s actions two years ago to limit the spread of the coronavirus early on the pandemic, including a stay-at-home order that shuttered many schools, businesses and houses of worship for a period of time. He also blasts requirements for masks and represented two voters in 2020 who were turned away from a polling location and asked to vote outside because they didn’t wear masks.
Left out of Cox’s statements, however, is that the stay-at-home order lasted less than two months and that there haven’t been mask requirements or capacity restrictions in most public places for more than a year and a half.
It’s not clear whether the coronavirus-based message will resonate with a broad range of Republican voters. Among Republicans who were polled by Goucher College, only 28% identified the pandemic as a major concern. Republicans listed inflation (90%), the cost of gas (90%) and crime (83%) as their most common concerns.
Cox also speaks out against vaccines, but would not say whether he’s been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“That’s not your business,” Cox said.
Cox does volunteer, however, that he was hospitalized with COVID in 2021 and claims his wife obtained hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin and sneaked it in. Those two drugs — which are not approved to treat COVID-19 — led to a quick recovery, Cox claims.
Cox also promises that he will make sure that public school children are “being educated and not indoctrinated” and he wants the state to force Baltimore City’s government into receivership so decisions are overseen by an outside party. It’s not clear if such a maneuver is legally feasible in Maryland; Cox acknowledges he’s still doing his research.
He’s also aggressively against abortion, and said he would continue his efforts to stop abortions that are paid for through taxpayer-funded Medicaid health insurance.
“I firmly believe in pro-life values. I firmly believe in life from conception to natural death,” Cox said in an interview.
“As governor, you can’t legislate from the governor’s office, but I absolutely would continue to support those policies of defending and protecting all life,” he said.
As a lawmaker for the past four years, Cox has found little success. A Baltimore Banner review of his legislative record shows two successful bills in four years, both in his first year: creating a task force to study criminal penalties and requiring courthouses to post a sign advertising a human trafficking hotline.
His effort to impeach Hogan was so poorly received that no other lawmakers joined in the effort, and the top-ranking Republican in the House of Delegates made the motion to defeat it.
But Cox’s message resonated with a crowd of supporters, many decked out in red, white, and blue, who gathered on a farm near Hampstead on Saturday for a rally. There were plenty of flags and apparel promoting Trump, including at least one person wearing a hat reading: “Trump won.”
At the back of the crowd, 58-year-old John Balazek held up a pole with a 4-by-8-foot Cox sign.
“I’ve been putting signs up all over Southern Maryland,” said Balazek, a retiree from Charles County. He’s also been leading sign-waving efforts on major highways, including Route 301 and Route 5.
Balazek was previously involved in conservative causes, including Bikers for Trump and the pro-gun-rights group Patriot Picket. So when he saw Cox at a “freedom rally,” he immediately knew Cox was his pick for governor.
“He’s been fighting all the good fights in Annapolis,” Balazek said. “He fights to get our rights back: God, guns and family.”
And while Cox has the support of voters, he’s won over very few elected Republicans or mainstream conservatives. Schulz, meanwhile, has the support of the Republican leaders in the General Assembly, and a long list of Republican lawmakers.
Too many Republicans in power have fallen in step with Hogan and his pandemic measures, Cox said. And no one else seemed willing to stand up and run for governor, Cox said. So he did.
“There was no other non-establishment candidate,” he said. “We were viewed as the outsider, the candidate of the people.”
As proof of his viability as a candidate, Cox points to Florida, led by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Cox said DeSantis is a “freedom governor” who governed well through the pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, Maryland has the lowest case rate of any state in the country and Florida’s coronavirus death rate is 43% higher than Maryland’s, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
“You look at DeSantis,” Cox said. “I mean, he won his race very narrowly at first, but now he’s wildly popular … It’s because he simply gave people the freedom back.”
“That’s what I’ve been fighting for,” Cox said. “I think this is a venue and an opportunity, and we’re winning. It’s exciting.”
Baltimore Banner photojournalist Kirk McKoy contributed to this article.