Trump base secured Republican gubernatorial nomination for Dan Cox, analysts say

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Dan Cox’s loyalists chanted “USA! USA!” as the Republican gubernatorial nominee claimed victory and began thanking, in order, Jesus Christ, his family and Donald Trump.

Inside the fire and rescue station hall in Frederick County on Tuesday night was a poster of Cox with “Trump endorsed” in block lettering. On the wall to his left was an oversized, red, white and blue banner reading “Trump 2024.”

“President Trump didn’t have to come alongside an outsider, a newcomer, so to speak … but he did,” said Cox, a state delegate who was little known before wrapping himself in Trump’s brand and tapping into the support the 45th president maintains.

“Trump was the deciding factor” in Cox’s decisive win over Kelly Schulz in the primary, said Mileah Kromer, an associate professor of political science and the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College. Schulz was state commerce secretary under Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and was the governor’s choice to succeed him.

Maryland Republicans generally agree Trump was a good president, although they differ on whether he can be the party leader of the future, she said.

And while Hogan is also very popular in Maryland, that doesn’t appear to provide coattails for other Republicans, Kromer said.

“People like Larry Hogan, that specific brand, and his brand of Republicanism, but it’s not necessarily transferable to other candidates,” she said.

Kromer said Schulz is pragmatic, and understood from the start that to win the general election would require appealing to independents and Democrats. “She was unwilling to make that hard right turn for the primary,” Kromer said.

The Democratic Governors Association released a video Wednesday called “MAGAland” that it says exposes Cox’s “extreme agenda by using direct quotes from other top Maryland Republicans.” During the primary, the association paid for an ad — it showcased Cox’s ties to Trump — that the Schulz campaign said cost more than $1 million.

Several analysts said they don’t see how Cox can position himself to win Maryland in November, given his forceful denial of the results of the 2020 election that Trump lost and his chartering of buses to a Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally near the White House.

That kind of profile at the top of the ballot will create problems for Republicans farther down if people are repelled by Cox and decide to vote for all the Democrats in other races, Kromer said.

“He has the potential for causing real headaches,” she said.

Candidates such as Barry Glassman, the Harford County executive running for Maryland comptroller, and Allan Kittleman, trying to reclaim the Howard County executive post he lost in 2018, are the kind of moderate Republicans who now could face more uphill paths to November, observers said.

“Moderates like Glassman must navigate a tough terrain of potentially distancing from a base he needs,” said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs.

Hartley said Cox’s victory was “extremely remarkable, demonstrating his ability to capture a far-right GOP base that must be considered by future governor hopefuls.”

Glassman said in a text message that he was attending a conference and unavailable for comment.

Steele: State Republicans failed to capitalize on Hogan’s brand

Michael Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor and one-time national GOP chair, faults state Republicans for failing to capitalize on a two-term, popular governor and nominate someone in his mold who can win in November.

“Instead you got the Trump-iest numbnut you can find,” Steele said. “Good luck with that in a state that is 2-to-1 Democrat.”

Steele, who decided against running in 2022 for governor himself, said Cox found a winning strategy, while Schulz didn’t break through.

“He made a direct appeal to a Trump base that turned out for him,” Steele said. “It was very effective. It got him the nomination.”

As for Schulz, “clearly there was not an effective enough effort to mine votes beyond the base votes that turn out.”

Steele said he doesn’t see Cox being able to pivot to becoming a more widely appealing candidate for the general election.

“He’s not going to move to the center,” Steele said. “It’s not in his political DNA.”

Steele said having Cox at the top of the ballot “puts a lot of pressure” on other Republican candidates, such as Glassman and Kittleman, to separate themselves from a candidate without crossover appeal to independents and Democrats.

“They can run the most independent race they can,” Steele said, and not invite Cox to come to their jurisdictions.

In a sense, the distancing is already starting: Hogan on Wednesday said through a spokesman that he would not vote for Cox in November.

Cox says voters will split tickets for a balanced government

Among those at Cox’s victory party was his father, Gary Cox, 70.

“I named my son Daniel after the prophet Daniel in the Bible,” he said in an interview. “I was awestruck that it’s possible for people of faith to live their faith and, in the process, to impact the culture around them for good.”

Cox dismisses the notion that his Trump ties will sink him in November in a state where the former president got 32% of the vote against Democrat Joe Biden in 2020.

“Well, I hope they keep trying to smear me on that,” Cox said in an interview. An anti-Trump strategy didn’t work last year in Virginia, he said, where Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won support from Trump partisans and more moderate voters.

Cox said he believed Marylanders of all political stripes would be willing to split their tickets, supporting him while voting for Democratic legislative candidates.

“The reason for that is they want to make sure they have a balanced government,” Cox said. “That’s number one. The second part of this is the Biden administration has so destroyed Maryland’s economy.”

On primary night, those at Schulz’ party increasingly saw the impending doom as more and more votes were tallied. They worried how someone as polarizing and allied with Trump as Cox could win in the general election.

“He’s so far to the right, his biggest qualification is he supports Trump,” said David Garner, 55, of Perry Hall. “That’s great if you like Trump, but in Maryland we’re 2-to-1 Democrat.”

Garner, who retired last year from the Baltimore County Police Department where he was a member of the SWAT team, said he supported Schulz because she is a “common sense conservative” like Hogan. Also, Schulz’ running mate, Jeff Woolford, is his brother-in-law.

Craig Lewis, 22, of Lutherville, was among a few who lingered at Schulz party after she addressed the crowd. It was a speech that was both defiant — she didn’t concede — and valedictory, as she thanked her family and volunteers.

“I think it’s a wake-up call for the Maryland Republican Party,” said Lewis, who works as an aide to the GOP caucus in the state House of Delegates.

He said he thought Schulz ran as if she didn’t have an opponent and underestimated Cox’s potential for winning. Lewis said many didn’t know who Schulz was, but they saw Cox’s signs all around and knew him to be a Trump supporter.

“Trump’s blessing does a lot, even in as blue a state as Maryland,” Lewis said.

Now, though, he said the party needs to coalesce around its nominee, even if he thinks Cox could lose in a landslide.