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In Md., GOP governor’s primary sometimes seems like it’s Hogan versus Trump

Former President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Larry Hogan hold each other in disdain. The two back different Republican candidates seeking to become Maryland’s next governor. (AP File Photos)

A week before the start of early voting, Maryland Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kelly Schulz was looking for a knockout blow in her race against primary foe Dan Cox.

A television ad paid for by Democrats highlighting Cox’s connection to President Donald J. Trump seemed the perfect cudgel for the former head of a state agency and Gov. Larry Hogan’s pick as his successor. A portion of Lawyers Mall between the State House and the house she hoped voters would elect her to live in seemed the perfect venue.

A permit allowed the Schulz campaign to move Cox supporters to a nearby sidewalk just feet away. Still, it was just close enough to see those holding Cox signs, even sometimes over a wall of large Schulz signs meant to obscure all others from the lenses of TV cameras and photographers.

And it was close enough for Cox himself to stalk the periphery and shout responses.

“I liken it to Rocky 3,” said Don Murphy, a former Republican legislator who compared Schulz to the titular hero and Cox as the hungry, omnipresent villain. “That’s Dan Cox. He’s literally standing in the crowd. What he did in Lawyers Mall was very Clubber Lang-ish.”

Murphy has not endorsed in the race. He said he has had contact with both the Cox and Schulz campaigns to offer real-time critiques and observations.

Extending the boxing analogy, Murphy noted that Schulz has yet to find an answer for Cox.

That means tough choices for primary voters who will have to choose between electability in November and passion and bombastic style. It’s tough choices for Republicans running for office whose vocal endorsements just months ago are more quiet now as they seek to avoid bringing the internecine squabble to their races.

Among the four vying for the Republican nomination, Cox and Schulz are locked in a statistical tie, with 44% of Republicans saying they are undecided.

“A lot of people just don’t know,” said one Republican lawmaker who said they had “strong thoughts” about the primary “but it just doesn’t benefit me to get in between, it’s not my fight.”

The campaign is about more than just the nomination. It is also a proxy battle between Hogan and Trump, who has endorsed Cox.

Hogan is seen as a potential rival for Trump in the 2024 for their party’s nomination for president. The two men have made little secret of their distaste for the other, and Hogan has offered support to Republicans across the country who have provoked Trump’s wrath.

Despite a redistricting cycle that favored Democrats, Maryland Republicans had reason for optimism this year.

After all, their party won three of the last five races for governor. And a tough midterm election for the GOP in 2018, this year’s midterm voting is shaping up to favor Republicans. Democrats hold the White House this year. A faltering economy and palpable angst and anger over inflation and gas prices can help make the case for voters looking to send a message.

Many incumbents — even those in the legislature who knew Dan Cox — quickly endorsed Hogan’s anointed successor. On paper, she was the more electable candidate in a general election.

“I’d say since last session when we were all together,  there has been a lot of anxiety among Republicans about Dan winning,” said the lawmaker. “I think that’s only heavily intensified since we left. I think in the last couple of weeks, they are really fearing he’s going to win this primary because we know it’s just destruction for our ticket.”

In 2018, Hogan proved very popular, winning a landslide re-election. But it was a bad year for Republicans overall. They did not see expected gains in the legislature and saw all but one incumbent county executive defeated. Democratic voters, looking to send a message to Trump, did not confer Hogan’s purple bipartisan Republicanism to others in his party.

Polls show Cox with a slim 3-point lead in a recent poll with a margin of error of 5%, making the race a statistical dead heat. Undecided voters still are the largest chunk of the primary electorate.

“I know she’s the best candidate,” said another Republican lawmaker who openly endorsed Schulz but asked not to be named citing primary concerns. “I can’t make this a proxy way in my race: Cox versus Schulz.”

“People in my district like Donald Trump and if you’re going to get in a pissing match between Trump and Hogan, Trump’s going to win it and that’s what polls are showing,” said the second Republican lawmaker.

Schulz has outspent her opponent 4-1 in a recent primary campaign report, including television ads.

Trump has endorsed Cox, saying his election would help rid the state of the “stench” of Hogan. But the former president has not come to the state to fundraise or to offer a more visible hand to Cox.

Cox’s biggest help on television comes from the Democratic Governors Association. That organization’s “Meet Dan” ads promote his conservative views on guns, abortion and his ties to Trump in a state where a Democrats hold a roughly 2-1 advantage in voter registration and where Trump is a four letter word among liberals.

The ad is a long-game gamble for the national party as it seeks to burnish Cox’s Trump conservatism. Doing so might help defeat Schulz and set up a more advantageous general election matchup against a Republican they believe is unelectable statewide.

Gerry Evans, a lobbyist who is backing Comptroller Peter Franchot in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, acknowledged a Cox victory would be a favorable matchup.

“If (Cox) should win, it’s a Democratic governor (in November,” Evans said, who added that he doubts the firebrand conservative will prevail.

“I just have more faith in the people of Maryland, both Republican and Democrat, I have more faith in Republicans that they’ll see him for what he is and vote for Kelly,” he said.

Evans said Schulz’s best hope lies in efforts to increase voter turnout.

“To be a Trumper, you’ve got to be a fanatic anyway so you can bet they’re coming out,” Evans said. “As for her vote, I don’t know if they’re as motivated with ideology to get out.”

Republican primary voters could be more likely to support Trump than Hogan. A Goucher Poll released two weeks ago found that Trump continues to outpoll Hogan among Republicans. The governor’s party is split on its support for a Hogan presidential campaign, with 39% saying they’d consider voting for him and 45% who said they would not consider voting for him.

In order to win, the Republican nominee will need support from Democrat voters as Hogan received in 2014 and 2018.

The Goucher Poll found that 49% of Democrats said they would consider Schulz in November if she is her party’s nominee. But 84% of those same voters said they would not consider voting for Cox when they learned he had been endorsed by Trump.

Murphy said Cox “has done more with less and (Schulz) has done less with more. It’s kind of embarrassing from her perspective.”