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Election 2022 Government & Politics

Dan Cox’s red-meat campaign leads to questions about his endgame

Gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox, speaking to reporters at Maryland Public Television on Oct. 12. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

If the last 60 years of Maryland political history offer any lessons, it’s that Republicans win statewide races when they run toward the middle.

Charles “Mac” Mathias made the leap from the House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate in 1968 by playing up his moderate (some called them “liberal”) views. Former Rep. Robert Ehrlich won the governorship in 2002 by replicating the broad coalition that won him numerous elections in his working-class Baltimore County congressional district. And Larry Hogan focused like a laser on taxes and the economy — eschewing hot-button cultural issues — to win the governor’s mansion eight years ago.

Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick), who is running for governor this year against Wes Moore (D) and three others, appears to have flung the winning GOP playbook out the window, according to a broad spectrum of observers.

With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, Cox has made few efforts to reach beyond his base, leaving even fellow Republicans dumbstruck as to how he intends to overcome the built-in advantage that Democrats enjoy in Maryland due to their voter registration advantage.

In interviews, campaign appearances and debates, Cox pays lip service to issues like inflation, crime and housing affordability — priorities for many voters — but his policy proposals in these areas only nibble at the edges. His website devotes little space to them.

He appears far more animated when he is re-litigating the 2020 White House election, sparring with the state Board of Elections, or railing against “critical race theory,” “gender indoctrination” and “parental rights” — issues that resonate strongly with right-wing voters but are unlikely to get him over the top against Moore.

Publicly, Cox expresses confidence that despite what polls and pundits say, he can win. Some of his most fervent supporters are hoping for a miracle.

In an interview, former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele offered an unsparing indictment of Cox’s failure to capitalize on his primary victory over the Hogan-endorsed center-right candidate, Kelly Schulz. 

“He’s out of politics after this,” said Steele, who served as lieutenant governor under Ehrlich. The next logical move for Cox, who is closely aligned with Donald Trump, he said, will be to pursue the same opportunities sought out by many people in the former president’s orbit.

“What’s he going to do? He’s going to find a space on a very conservative talk radio program and grift. That’s what they all do,” Steele said. “(These) people aren’t serious. They’re not serious. This is all about, ‘How do I turn this s***-show of an act into money, into dollars for me? How do I make money?’”

“It’s bull,” he added. “To paraphrase Prince, this is what it sounds like when candidates can’t win.”

Len Foxwell, former chief of staff to Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), Annapolis communications consultant and part-time communications professor at Johns Hopkins University, said Cox’s primary goal isn’t to succeed Hogan, it’s to “build a far-right brand that he can monetize after the election.”

“He’s made no effort whatsoever to expand his political reach, broaden his coalition, or bring new constituencies under his tent,” Foxwell said. “Rather, he seems content to double-down on his very narrow base of social and cultural warriors.”

Foxwell said Cox’s “aspirational model” appears to be another Dan — Dan Bongino, the hard-charging former Secret Service agent who made a successful pivot to punditry following a pair of unsuccessful campaigns in Maryland.

Observers see other signs that Cox may be driven primarily by what comes next.

Unlike Ehrlich and Hogan, who chose Black running mates who could broaden their appeal in a diverse state, Cox selected Gordana Schifanelli, an attorney from the Eastern Shore best known for right-wing social media attacks. She did not appear with Cox the night he won the Republican primary and appears to have been a non-factor in the campaign.

Rather than take a victory lap after his resounding primary win, Cox laid low, which meant he was effectively defined by Democrats and Hogan, whose rhetorical attacks were merciless.

Cox has failed to unite his own party, nor has he successfully courted key constituencies that often side with Republicans, like the state Chamber of Commerce, whose leader, Mary Kane, a former GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, recently sang Moore’s praises. Cox’s fundraising has been anemic and his press operation sporadic. (Calls from reporters frequently go unanswered and journalists have to cobble together Cox’s appearances from his Facebook feed.)

During an interview on Bloomberg on Tuesday, Cox made numerous false claims during a disjointed appearance on the influential “Balance of Power” program. He called Hillary Clinton “an election denier,” even though she conceded defeat within hours following her loss to Trump in 2016. He falsely said that Moore wants to shift $500 million from the Baltimore Police budget to social programs. And he referenced “my economic plan” to fight inflation, though his website lists no such plan.

Host David Westin was openly skeptical of many of Cox’s statements.

When Hogan ran for re-election against Democrat Ben Jealous in 2018, he pulled together a coalition of “Democrats for Hogan” to burnish his bipartisan bona fides. Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman, one of the Hogan Democratic endorsers, said Cox’s strategy bears no resemblance to the governor’s. He called Cox’s harping on the 2020 election “disqualifying.”

“Whatever he’s doing — not to be too glib or anything — but it seems like a dead-man-walking situation,” Ashman said. “I have no idea is motivating him to make the moves that he’s making.”

A Republican member of the General Assembly from a GOP stronghold said “nobody” understands Cox’s approach to the race. “Everybody’s like, what’s he doing? We haven’t seen or heard from the guy, so everybody’s like ‘this race is over, just let it go.’” The officeholder spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve their chances for re-election.

Steele’s criticism isn’t limited to Cox. He also blames his party for failing to take advantage of Hogan’s “successful” two terms to mount a strong gubernatorial campaign and perhaps pick up a couple county executive and legislative seats in the process. “We’re not in a position to do anything but get our asses kicked in two weeks,” he said, his voice rising. Steele briefly considered running for governor himself in 2021 but opted against it.

While criticism of Cox is flowing freely — and predictions of a lopsided election result are the norm — pollster Mileah Kromer thinks he may not be wired to reach beyond his base. Nonetheless, she sees little chance of his strategy being successful.

“This is clearly not the path to winning a general election vote,” she said. “The problem is that his values — and the things that he cares about and talks about — just don’t match up with what the average voter in Maryland wants.”