One day after Del. Dan Cox declared victory over former state Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Democrats and their allies rushed to define the GOP nominee as an ideological extremist in the mold of Donald Trump. Or, as Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) famously put it, a “QAnon whack job.”
At the same time, a high-profile Republican seeking statewide office signaled that he intends to keep his distance from his party’s nominee.
House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery) accused Republicans of nominating “their most extreme ticket ever,” noting that Cox organized buses for Trump supporters to the U.S. Capitol for the Jan. 6 rally. Luedtke faulted Michael Peroutka, the GOP’s apparent nominee for attorney general, for his ties to “a neo-confederate group.”
“This extreme ticket is wrong for Maryland,” he tweeted. “Voters should reject it.”
The Maryland Democratic Party issued a statement accusing the state GOP of showing “its true colors.”
“They’ve come out from hiding behind their governor’s façade, pretending to be a moderate party, and they’ve chugged the QAnon Kool-Aid,” the statement read. “They’ve succumbed to the ultra-ignorant QAnon, MAGA wing of their party.”
The Democratic Governors Association posted an online ad on Wednesday that consists largely of video clips in which Hogan and Schulz bluntly tear into Cox. The ad uses the “whack job” clip from a 2021 State House press conference and another in which the governor refers to him as “this crazy guy” — someone he would “not support in any way for anything.”
Schulz appears at a campaign event, calling her former rival “a lying conspiracy theorist.”
The Defend Democracy Project, a non-profit seeking to defend American democracy, also labeled Cox a “far-right conspiracy theorist” in a news release.
Wes Moore (D), the former foundation executive who is sitting atop the Democratic primary field following the tabulation of election day and early-voting ballots, refrained from comment. He said on Tuesday he will not declare victory until all votes have been counted.
The process for counting more than 200,000 mail-in ballots is expected to last several weeks, but the political world appeared convinced on Wednesday that the race in November will feature Moore and Cox. And Democrats made it clear that they will tar Cox loudly and often, to make it harder for him to make inroads with centrist voters.
The Republican candidate for comptroller, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, signaled that he intends to focus on his Democratic opponent, Del. Brooke Lierman.
Asked about Cox’s victory, Glassman in an interview said he was “evaluating everything and taking a deep breath as everything becomes final here.” But his office then released a statement in which Glassman said he will be not be making endorsements — even within his own party.
“The number one priority of the comptroller’s office should be protecting and advocating for Maryland taxpayers, not playing politics,” he said. “I’m running to serve hardworking Marylanders, not to help other politicians, and therefore won’t be campaigning or endorsing any other candidates.”
Other visible party leaders undertook their own maneuvers.
Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci confirmed that the governor will not be supporting Cox in November. “He is not supporting the QAnon candidate,” Ricci told Maryland Matters.
Doug Mayer, a senior advisor to Schulz who served as Hogan’s first-term communications director, told the Baltimore Banner, “The Maryland Republican Party got together and committed ritualized mass suicide.”
“The only thing missing was Jim Jones and a glass of Kool-Aid,” he added.
Adam Dubitsky, a former Hogan policy director turned corporate communications professional, announced on Twitter that he was quitting the party. “#MDGOP I’m out,” he wrote. “The party I so proudly worked in for 34 years has devolved into a personality cult; the price of entry — fealty to someone who trounced on our Constitution in an attempt to overthrow a duly elected president.”
“Who’s up for #ANewParty?,” he asked.
Republicans have won three of the last five gubernatorial races in Maryland, despite a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage for Democrats, and the current national political climate led to predictions that a candidate with potential appeal to moderates — like Schulz — could extend the party’s winning streak.
But Cox’s victory brought palpable despair among GOP strategists and activists. They worry not only that Cox will flame out, but also that other, more viable candidates for state and local offices will be thrown off message whenever Cox or his running mate, Gordana Schifanelli, say something inflammatory.
“Sadly, we’re going to get crushed down-ballot,” said strategist Jim Dornan, who worked on-and-off for Schulz. “Cox’s ideas are so out there, that it makes people recoil, except for his most hard-core supporters. And that’s maybe — maybe — 30% of the electorate.”
“Trump got 33% in 2020” in Maryland, he added. “Do Dan Cox and his people think they’re going to out-poll Donald Trump in an off-year (election)?”
The Cox campaign did not respond to a voice message left on the candidate’s cell phone or to emails. Dirk Haire, the head of the Maryland Republican Party, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Rep. Andy Harris (R).
Del. Ric Metzgar (R-Baltimore County), a Cox supporter who garnered the highest number of votes in his three-member House district Tuesday, expressed confidence in the party’s chances in November and predicted “a red wave that you’ve never seen in a long, long time.”
The Schulz camp kept a low profile on the day after the race was called. In remarks to supporters Tuesday, she said she will “never regret” the way she campaigned. “My Republican Party is the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and John McCain. And that is exactly the party that I will continue to fight for.”
Did the DGA help Cox’s win?
Dornan said two factors put Cox over the top — the Trump endorsement, which came in November and provided a fundraising boost, and the Democratic Governors Association ad blitz. The organization’s ads carried the ostensible message that Cox was “too conservative” for Maryland, but they were widely perceived as helping educate GOP voters about his alliance with the former president.
Some observers dismiss the DGA ads, saying they had little impact. The key to the race, in the view of these strategists, was Trump’s willingness to take part in multiple Cox campaign events. Peroutka, the successful Republican attorney general candidate, is so far leading a more moderate rival, Jim Shalleck, by almost the identical margin that Cox beat Schulz, multiple analysts noted, even though the DGA didn’t spend a penny on Peroutka’s behalf.
Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who once headed the Republican National Committee, rejected the suggestion that the DGA played a key role. “All they did was maybe add a percent or two more to the turnout,” he said. “They spent a million bucks; they really didn’t need to.”
Dornan, in the meantime, said he can’t envision Cox’s brand of politics playing in a state like Maryland. “Cox never had a policy agenda,” he said. “He never had a coherent policy strategy. If you look at his speech last night, it was a rambling word salad of just insanity.”
He predicted that Moore “will run circles around Cox, if they even engage with him. And if I were them, I would not.”