The nomination of Dan Cox as the Republican candidate for governor has some GOP candidates running away from the top of the ticket, complicating the gubernatorial nominee’s hopes of uniting his party in time for the general election.
Cox — who believes the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, once branded Vice President Mike Pence “a traitor,” and sought to impeach Gov. Larry Hogan — soundly defeated his closest rival, Kelly Schulz, in last month’s primary.
Now, Cox’s victory raises a major question for his party: Can Republicans unify and mount a competitive campaign for governor and other key races around the state?
Republican Allan Kittleman is squaring off against Democrat Howard County Executive Calvin Ball in November. Four years ago, Ball ousted Kittleman, a moderate Republican, in a year that was bad for nearly every incumbent Republican county executive in the state.
This year, Kittleman supported Schulz over Cox.
“I’ll be doing campaign events actually with Governor Hogan,” said Kittleman when asked if he would be campaigning with Cox.
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Kittleman is a self-scribed moderate “in the mold of Larry Hogan.” Cox and his supporters have branded Hogan a RINO — a Republican in name only.
“I’m not anticipating doing anything with Dan Cox. I was a Kelly Schulz supporter. I’m going to be focusing on Howard County,” he said. “I don’t know if Dan Cox wants to be with me. He might call me a RINO. I just think the point is, let’s look at our election in Howard County and what’s best for Howard County. I think that anybody who is at all on the conservative side of the aisle would think I would be a better county executive.”
Similar to Hogan, Kittleman said Thursday, he is not voting for Cox. When he got some pushback from his campaign manager, Kittleman said: “I have to be true to myself.”
Appearing at a Thursday event with Hogan, Kittleman later sought out reporters to say he would not be voting for Democrat Wes Moore or supporting any other candidate for governor.
Kittleman held out some hope for unity.
“I think I am a voice for Republican unity,” Kittleman said. “I think I am a voice for explaining that we need to bring folks back to the center. I think if you have someone in the Republican Party that’s bringing people to the center it’s a good thing for our party. ”
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who is running for comptroller, also said he will not campaign with Cox.
The open question of unity and Cox’s hard-right political stances have Democrats dreaming of racking up victories up and down the ticket. Cox would need about one in five Democrats to vote for him to have a chance of winning.
In the meantime, it’s not even clear if Cox can count on all of the votes in his own party.
Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich is spearheading an effort to change that and to unite the party.
“I’m the unity guy,” said Ehrlich, who was brought in by Rep. Andy Harris and state Republican Party Chair Dirk Haire.
“Do I want 100% unity? It would be nice, of course,” he said. “Will I get it? As I said, most Republicans candidates are right-of-center conservative. To the extent that there’s a platform, a commonality of positions on major issues of the day, most Republican candidates are going to subscribe to those issues.”
Ehrlich called on Republicans up and down the ticket to focus on “kitchen table issues” — the economy and inflation, schools and related concerns. The former governor and congressman said he would not address specific candidates or specific issues and did not talk about Hogan’s contrary view. Similarly, Hogan avoided talking about Ehrlich, his former boss.
For Ehrlich, unity might mean Republicans up and down the ballot all rowing in the same direction — even if they are in different boats from the top of the ticket.
“Everybody is going to do their own politics,” said Ehrlich. “That’s the bottom line. Everybody’s going to do what they think is best for them.”
Related: As Cox celebrates win, his path to a November victory looks rocky, analysts say
Ehrlich said he does believe there will be support for the top of the ticket but added he won’t criticize candidates for their choices.
It’s an effort that is familiar to Republicans. And may be more difficult than it sounds.
“That’s a great question, ” said Hogan when asked about Republican unity. “I guess we’ll find out in November.”
In 1994, Ellen Sauerbrey, a conservative Baltimore County Republican lawmaker, defeated Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. The congresswoman was long considered the frontrunner.
The campaign was widely considered an ugly affair between the two Republicans.
Sauerbrey won the primary — she refused to shake Bentley’s hand at a unity rally and the congresswoman refused to endorse her. She lost the general election by a scant 5,993 votes. Sauerbrey went on to unsuccessfully challenge the results in court, citing voter fraud.
“I was there that night,” said Cox when asked about uniting the party. “She united the party.”
Moderate Republicans supportive of Schulz and Hogan are seen as RINOs — Republicans in name only — by a more strident faction of the right supportive of Trump and of Cox.
Hogan himself has said he will not vote for Cox. He has repeatedly called Cox a “QAnon whack job.”
Hogan Thursday said he hasn’t yet decided who he would vote for.
“My decision will be like everyone else’s,” Hogan said. “We’ll have to see what happens in this campaign and see who is the best one to take over.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Wes Moore would get Hogan’s vote.
“There’s a third candidate in the race we’ll have to take a look at,” said Hogan. “He has more experience than the other two.”
In 2016, Hogan voted for his father instead of Donald Trump. Four years later, Hogan spurned Trump again in favor of writing in Ronald Reagan.
Hogan, speaking Thursday, didn’t have a short list of options for governor — at least not yet.
“I guess I’ll have to figure that out in the next few months,” he said.
“I’m a lifelong dedicated Republican, but sometimes you have crazy people who are the nominees and if you have a great candidate who is in a different party, I think that’s what most people do,” Hogan said. “That’s how I was elected.”