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Analysis: Once a vociferous Hogan critic, Cox now wooing his supporters

While Gov. Larry Hogan has had nothing kind to say about GOP gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox, he was all smiles when he crossed paths with Democratic nominee Wes Moore at the Maryland Association of Counties summer meeting in Ocean City. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Voters watching the only gubernatorial debate Wednesday night may have missed Del. Dan Cox’s acknowledgment of an electoral math problem.

Cox, the Republican nominee, has spent the better part of the last two years publicly deriding Republican two-term Gov. Larry Hogan. He’s hinted that the governor isn’t Republican enough, unsuccessfully sued him in federal court and attempted to impeach him (an action rejected by every other legislative Republican).

But on Wednesday afternoon, in an Owings Mills television studio, Cox looked into the camera and offered a softer take on his relationship with Hogan. In his opening statement and several other times, he said he stood with Hogan. When asked to grade the outgoing executive, he gave high marks.

“I give Governor Hogan an A on everything  except the difference of opinion we’ve had on the handling of COVID,” Cox said.

RELATED: Moore, Cox clash on crime, abortion and fitness for office

“Other than (Cox) impeaching him and suing him and saying that he was part of everything that is wrong with America, what do you think of Larry Hogan? Oh, I love him,” Todd Eberly, a political science professor at the St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said summing up Cox’s statements.

It was an odd turn for a candidate who has wrapped himself in a MAGA flag.

“How you reconcile that with I stand with him is sort of beyond me other than Hogan still has a 70% approval rating,” Eberly said. “Cox is down by 20-30 points and he realizes that he cannot make up ground by running against Larry Hogan. He has maxed out the level of support you get as a MAGA candidate and that puts him in the 30s.”

And therein lies Cox’s math problem.

“It doesn’t matter how robust Republican turnout is,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor and director of the Goucher Poll. There isn’t a reality where you can win without having at least 25% of Democrats. That’s the low end. That’s just the math.”

Cox’s hard-right policies and dislike of Hogan play well to a subset of Republican voters who made him the nominee. Those same policies are a tougher sell to the wider Maryland electorate who voted for Hogan twice and continue to make him one of the most popular governors in the country in statewide polls taken over the last eight years.

“What you cannot deny is that Governor Hogan has maintained a 60% approval rating in Maryland with a heavily Democratic electorate,” Kromer said. “He knows the path to victory for Republicans in Maryland. He is the path to victory. Cox is just not a Republican like Larry Hogan.”

That statement cuts both ways.

“It cuts both ways and you can say that if you want to appeal to Republicans who are frustrated with Hogan and love Donald Trump,” Kromer said. “That was enough to win a primary. When you talk about a general electorate, the math doesn’t change. The math did not change. You have to win Democratic votes.”

Two recent polls by Goucher College and The Washington Post show Cox trailing badly behind Democratic nominee Wes Moore. More than 80% of Democrats said they wouldn’t consider voting for Cox because of his endorsement by Trump.

Cox also draws criticism for co-hosting a bus trip to Washington, D.C., to participate in the “stop the steal” rally. That rally exploded into an insurrection and brief occupation of the U.S. Capitol.

Cox is publicly dismissive of the polls. He describes a 22-point lead by Moore as “very within striking distance.” A Washington Post Poll showed Moore up by 32 points. That same poll reported that 22% of Republicans surveyed said they’d vote for Moore.

Cox said the Post poll was deliberately biased against him.

“You don’t have to believe the polls to understand the dynamics of this election. It’s not just about how Dan Cox is behaving. Look at some of the other top-tier Republicans who are not campaigning with him,” Kromer said. “You don’t have to believe the Goucher College Poll or the Washington Post poll to see the behavior of other top Republicans.”

Cox’s comments at the debate also contradict his well-documented relationship with Hogan.

Tying yourself to Hogan at this point or trying to tie yourself to Hogan at this point, it just falls flat once you try to impeach somebody,” Kromer said.

RELATED: Cox fundraiser set for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate

But there was Cox, standing behind a podium proclaiming his associations with a man many Cox supporters  believe is a RINO — a political slur denoting someone who is a Republican In Name Only. Trump himself, in statements of support for Cox, has referred to both Hogan and Kelly Schulz, Cox’s defeated primary opponent, by the derogatory acronym.

Attempting to impeach a sitting governor can hardly be seen as a “difference of opinion.” Cox’s grade of Hogan came off as “inflated” to professors Eberly and Kromer.

“You cannot have the history that Cox has with Hogan, when you try to impeach someone, that pretty much indicates regardless of any other area of agreement, you don’t think they should be governor,” Eberly said.

For his part, Hogan has called Cox mentally unstable, unfit to lead, a conspiracy theory subscribing  “Q Anon wack job.” He refuses to campaign with his would-be successor.

Hogan has publicly ruled out voting for Cox. And he has markedly avoided criticizing Moore, something the departing governor has not shied away from doing with other Democratic candidates.

And Hogan’s donors gave Moore nearly $120,000 between July 19 and Aug. 23, according to reporting by Capital News Service. During that same period, former Hogan donors gave Cox about $30,000.

Other Republicans are taking a hands-off approach to the top of the ticket including Harford County Executive and comptroller candidate Barry Glassman, Allan Kittleman, a Republican running for Howard County executive, and Sen. Bryan Simonaire, the Republican leader in the Senate.

Kromer said the voters Cox wants to woo will more likely remember what he did days after the debate rather than his words — an upcoming Florida fundraiser with the former president who is wildly unpopular in Maryland.

“You can say what you want in a debate at the end of the day, the most important thing Democrats will remember is that five days later he went to Mar-a-Lago with Trump, who has called Larry Hogan a bunch of different names,” Kromer said.