On paper, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Dan Cox has one main opponent this fall — Democrat Wes Moore, the best-selling author and former nonprofit CEO.
Increasingly, however, the Frederick County lawmaker is being forced to beat back attacks from a second high-profile foe — the state’s popular governor, Republican Larry Hogan.
Hogan has repeatedly called the Trump-endorsed Cox a “QAnon whack job” and a “nut job.” He has said he will not be voting for him or supporting him in any way. And he declared that he wouldn’t let the lawmaker set foot in the governor’s office.
This week, Hogan went further, questioning the GOP standard-bearer’s sanity.
“He’s not, in my opinion, mentally stable,” Hogan told an Eastern Shore radio station, WGMD, this week. “Half of Republicans don’t support the guy because he’s a nut.”
The governor’s comments come at a crucial time for Cox.
As he pivots from the primary election to the general, he is trying to make the best possible first impression on Democrats and independents who may not have tracked the GOP primary. He also needs to court the voters who supported his main primary rival, former state commerce secretary Kelly Schulz.
Cox is also trying to professionalize the ad hoc team that helped him capture the nomination. In recent days he opened a new campaign headquarters and hired a campaign manager and press secretary.
Sen. Johnny Ray Salling (R-Baltimore County), a Cox supporter, conceded that Hogan’s constant attacks are likely to make the GOP nominee’s uphill fight even more difficult.
“To me, it’s devastating, especially for your party,” said Salling. “You have somebody that you would think would be your supporter and it’s not.”
Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R), an outspoken Cox critic and Schulz supporter like Hogan, also predicted that the governor’s comments will hurt the GOP candidate. “You have a governor with 70% approval rating and if he’s saying that he doesn’t care for this other candidate, it’s going to have some impact,” he said.
(Rutherford distanced himself from Hogan’s description of Cox as being “not mentally stable,” calling it “not terminology I would use.”
“The people who support Del. Cox, they support him for the positions that he takes,” Rutherford added.)
In an email, Cox declined to characterize Hogan’s crack about his mental state. He said the choice for voters this fall center around the candidates on the ballot, not the current governor.
“On the ballot for November’s Governor race are Dan Cox and Wes Moore,” Cox wrote. “Wes Moore has made it clear that if elected he would continue governmental discrimination and overreach including more mandates, dictating gender indoctrination in our schools, forced masking, experimental vaccine passports to attend events and even to eat out, and more lockdowns. But the people of Maryland and I, as your governor, will return power to the people, end mandates, keep businesses and schools open and safe, and restore freedom to the Free State.”
Republicans who run statewide for most offices in Maryland — U.S. Senate, comptroller, attorney general — often fail by wide margins, thanks largely to the lopsided voter registration advantage that Democrats enjoy. GOP candidates for governor have won three of the last five governors races by appealing to a broad spectrum of the electorate.
Hogan’s comments about Cox imperil his ability to build that coalition. They could also hurt fundraising.
Goucher College political science professor Mileah Kromer said Hogan is “popular where it matters for winning general elections, popular among moderate-to-conservative Democrats and consistently popular among independents.”
Kromer said Hogan’s continual (and arguably unprecedented) takedowns of Cox only reinforce her core question about his candidacy — whether Cox has a mathematical path to victory. “You have a message from a very popular Republican governor basically saying ‘This guy’s not me,’” she said. “’There is a reason (voters) voted for me, but this guy’s not me.’”
In addition to making sharp-elbowed comments about Cox on the radio, Hogan went a step further on Friday, posing for pictures with Moore and wife Dawn during a chance encounter at the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference. The governor’s staff posted a photo of the trio online.
In an interview, Hogan denied trying to actively undermine Cox’s bid for high office. He said his comment about Cox’s mental stability came only after he received a litany of Cox-related questions.
“It doesn’t matter to me what happens to Dan Cox,” he said. “I was on the radio, talking about all the things that we’re doing, and everything we’ve accomplished for the [Eastern] Shore. And the guy asked me five, six questions about him. And I was just tired of answering the stupid questions.”
Hogan’s comments were picked up by several national media outlets, including The Hill, making it certain that former President Trump, with whom the governor has long sparred, with become aware of them.
Democrats welcomed Hogan’s comments about Cox.
“The governor is incredibly popular, not just in Baltimore County but across the state,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski (D). “I hope that his comments have a deep impact.”
“I think it says a lot when a sitting governor criticizes someone of their own party so resoundingly,” he added.
Former Secretary of State John Willis (D), a political science professor at the University of Baltimore, agreed. An early Moore supporter and Dawn Moore’s former boss when the two worked in the Secretary of State’s office, Willis said: “As the nominee of a party, you wouldn’t want the governor of the state making those comments about you in a general public setting.”