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As Cox celebrates win, his path to a November victory looks rocky, analysts say

Dan Cox, a candidate for the Maryland Republican gubernatorial nomination, speaks to reporters at his campaign party on primary night, Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Emmitsburg, Md. (Kenneth K. Lam/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Republican primary voters’ choice of a candidate backed by former President Donald Trump could have consequences for other Republicans in November.

Dan Cox’s victory over Kelly Schulz allowed disgruntled conservative voters a chance to send a message to Gov. Larry Hogan. Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, called the Cox victory “the worst-case scenario” for the Republican Party in 2022.

“It’s not just the governor, it’s the candidate for attorney general,” said Eberly. “We’ve got a state where Donald Trump was barely able to top 30% of the vote running for president and the Republican Party basically said we’re going to take people who are MAGA to the Nth degree and make them our standard bearers.”

The primary outcome will likely limit Republicans in other races and impinge efforts to increase the number of Republican state delegates, senators and county executives.

“They had a real shot at holding onto the governor’s mansion for an unprecedented third term, and they just tossed that away,” said Eberly. “At least for the next four years, Republicans are going to  be irrelevant to state politics — and I mean totally irrelevant.”

Maryland Republicans broke a more than three decade hold on the governor’s mansion by  Democratic Party in 2002. Then Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. vowed he would bury then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich and his Republican party so deep it would take two decades for the party to dig itself out.

Ehrlich lost but the party, through Hogan, went on to win two more gubernatorial elections — three of five since 2002. And Hogan became the first Republican to be reelected since Theodore McKeldin.

“It’s safe to say that Republican primary voters (Tuesday) night did far more damage to the Republican Party in Maryland than any Democrat has ever done,” said Eberly.

Cox, with Trump’s support, soundly defeated Kelly Schulz, a former Cabinet secretary under Hogan and a candidate who had the endorsement of her former boss.

“I think what happened is that Democrats got a much easier path to taking the governor’s mansion, and I think there is nothing in all my years of polling that suggests otherwise,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College who also runs the Goucher Poll.

Cox, a one-term delegate, frequently touts his strong conservative views, including opposition to abortion and support of expanded gun rights. He introduced a bill seeking to impeach Hogan over his policies during the pandemic, and he has supported Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen. He led a bus group to Washington and on social media that day called Vice President Mike Pence “a traitor.”

“Dan Cox? I mean, this guy is a nut job,” said Jim Brochin, a Democratic former state senator who backed Hogan in 2018. “He has zero chance. Zero.

“‘The big lie’ is the line in the sand that in my opinion is treason and is the undoing of American democracy and needs to be squashed,” said Brochin.

Cox, who frequently eschews the press, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Not including mail-in ballots, which cannot be counted before Thursday, the statewide voter turnout was just over 17%.

In red, rural Maryland — the bastion of Republican strength in the state — voter turnout surpassed the state average. In all, 13 rural counties reported turnout of 20% or higher. Allegany County reported a 19.5% turnout.

Cox won 13 of those 14 jurisdictions. The total margin of victor is more than 56% of his total current lead.

Schulz surpassed the votes garnered in the 2014 Republican primary by outgoing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

If the results in the Democratic gubernatorial primary remain unchanged by mail-in votes, Cox will face Democrat Wes Moore in the general election. That race has not yet been called.

Democrats would be happy to have any of their top three gubernatorial candidates square off against the ultra-conservative candidate, Brochin said.

“The right wingers showed up in force and just handed Wes Moore the governorship,” said Brochin.

Republicans, some who supported Schulz and other who had not endorsed, expressed concern earlier this month about how a Cox victory would affect other races. Eberly and others said the party should be concerned.

“The only way political parties and voters learn and change is through losing,” said Doug Mayer, a top adviser to the Schulz campaign. “And there is a s–t ton of losing on the way. Batten down the hatches.”

Cox’s victory may also divide Republicans as the party was divided in 1994 when Ellen Sauerbrey defeated Helen Delich Bentley in a bitter primary battle.

Hogan was traveling on Wednesday, but a spokesman said the governor “will not support the QAnon candidate.” 

The Democratic Governors Association spent over $1 million on television ads that promoted Cox’s connections to former President Donald Trump. The commercials are a kind of siren’s song to Republican primary voters who, like their Democratic counterparts, tend to be to the extreme of the party.

Democrats hoped to coax Republicans to follow that song and vote for Cox and then smash the candidate on the rocks in November by defining the GOP nominee as a Trump acolyte, thus making him anathema to any moderate Democrats who might have been looking to cross party lines.

As a result, Cox’s route to a November victory could prove difficult.

“The results of the primary don’t change the dynamics of the general (election),” said Kromer, noting Cox or another Republican would need 25% of Democrats or more to cross over.

A poll released by Kromer in late June found that roughly one-third of Democrats said they would consider voting for Schulz — a number that would make her competitive in November. Of those same Democrats, 84% said they would not consider voting for Cox when told he had been endorsed by Trump.

“It’s not enough,” she said of Cox’s limited appeal to Democrats. “It’s just not enough.”