ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan aren’t waiting until 2024 to fight over the future of the Republican Party.
Approaching the final months of his second term, Hogan is encouraging GOP voters to rally behind gubernatorial candidate Kelly Schulz, who served as labor secretary and commerce secretary in his administration. Trump, however, is backing Dan Cox, a state legislator who has said President Joe Biden’s victory shouldn’t have been certified, called former Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor” and sought to impeach Hogan for his pandemic policies.
The dynamics have turned next week’s GOP primary for governor into a proxy battle between Trump and Hogan, who are offering vastly different visions of the party’s future as they eye presidential runs in 2024. Hogan, who is prevented from seeking reelection because of term limits, is one of Trump’s most prominent GOP critics and has urged the party to move on from his divisive brand of politics. Trump, meanwhile, has spent much of his post-presidency lifting candidates who embrace his election lies.
“It’s difficult not to see this primary between Hogan-endorsed Kelly Schulz and Trump-endorsed Dan Cox in a broader context of national Republican politics," said Mileah Kromer, an associate professor of political science at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.
Whoever emerges from the GOP primary will face steep hurdles in a state that represents one of the best opportunities this year for a Democrat to take back a governor’s mansion. Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in the state, but Hogan was able to win two terms by pledging to cut taxes, emphasizing bipartisanship and not being afraid to challenge Trump.
A poll last month by the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher, The Baltimore Banner and WYPR found Schulz and Cox in a close race, with Cox at 25% and Schulz at 22% — within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.8 percentage points. Forty-four percent of Republican voters were undecided.
Two other Republicans are also in the race: Robin Ficker, a former state lawmaker who was a well-known sports heckler, and Joe Werner, an attorney.
The winner will take on the candidate who prevails in a crowded Democratic race that includes former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, bestselling author Wes Moore, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.
The competing visions for the Republican Party were evident as GOP voters cast early ballots in the primary.
Republican Jeff Conley, 68, said he's disappointed with the party's current trajectory and voted for Schulz as a mark of his support for Hogan.
“I have been a Republican all my life, and the Trump people have hijacked the party, and I want it back,” Conley said. "Love Larry Hogan. I’d like to see him run and be president and bring a bunch of people with him who are reasonable and can get along."
Christine Cirone, 50, however, said she voted for Cox, citing his opposition to abortion as well as an unsuccessful lawsuit he filed over Hogan's COVID-19 policies. Trump's endorsement, she said, was also an important factor in her vote.
“He’s an America First patriot. That’s exactly why I voted for him," Cirone said at an early voting center in Annapolis.
Democrats have sought to meddle in the race to boost Cox's standing in the primary, a tactic the party has used in other states this midterm season in the hopes of facing an easier opponent in the general election.
The Democratic Governors Association paid more than $1 million to broadcast an ad that emphasizes Cox's conservative credentials, calling him “too close to Trump” and asserting that he will protect the Second Amendment “at all costs.”
“The math is easy," Schulz said at a news conference with Hogan last month in front of Maryland's Capitol to denounce the ad. “Spend a million now and save $5 million by not having to face me in the general election.”
She said Republican voters were “savvy” enough to recognize that “the best candidate is somebody that can win in November.”
Cox described the news conference as evidence his opponent is worried.
“It’s proof, I think, that we’re winning,” Cox told reporters. “The people of Maryland want change.”
Hogan has left open the possibility of running for the White House in 2024. He said last weekend on NBC's “Meet the Press” that he believes voters are tired of the extremes in both parties and that there's “growing demand for exactly what we've done in Maryland over the last eight years.”
Hogan has criticized Cox for organizing buses to Washington for the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by a violent mob of Trump supporters. Cox has said he didn't go to the Capitol and left before the rioting began.
In a tweet he later deleted, Cox called Pence a “traitor” for refusing to go along with Trump's demands not to certify the 2020 election, though he later expressed regret for using the word.
Trump has offered strong support for Cox while referring to Hogan and Schulz as RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only, a term of derision for those considered insufficiently loyal to the former president.
“More importantly, Dan will end Larry Hogan’s terrible RINO reign by defeating his ‘Never Trump’ successor, another low-energy RINO, Kelly Schulz,” Trump said in a statement Tuesday.
Hogan expressed doubts about whether this year's gubernatorial primary reflected a proxy battle between himself and the former president.
“It’s about two different candidates and two different philosophies,” Hogan said after casting a ballot for Schulz last week.
Hogan said Schulz was the only Republican candidate able to build on his accomplishments and keep a Democrat out of the governor's mansion.
“The other candidates in the Republican primary just have no chance whatsoever to run a competitive race," he said.