Md. Republicans love Trump and Hogan. Whose candidate will win Tuesday?

Reuters file photo
Former U.S. President Donald Trump reacts during his speech during a rally at the Iowa States Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, Oct. 9, 2021.

The first thing Donald Trump did to rally Maryland Republican primary voters this week was denigrate their popular two-term governor, Larry Hogan.

“You’ll get rid of a lousy governor,” Trump said during a telephone rally for state Del. Dan Cox, whom he called “100% MAGA” and the obvious choice to succeed term-limited Hogan, a Republican and Trump antagonist, in the deeply blue state.

“You don’t want Hogan’s anointed successor,” Trump continued, referring to Kelly Schulz, a former Hogan Cabinet secretary. “Anybody he wants, frankly, I’d be against just on that basis alone.”

Maryland’s Republican primary race has become widely viewed as a hostile proxy campaign between Trump’s and Hogan’s competing visions for the direction of the party. It echoes the schism in GOP contest nationwide as the party seeks nominees that can regain control of Congress in November’s midterm elections.

The contest plays out in a state where Republicans know both men well and consistently give each high favorability ratings. Tuesday’s primary will force them, for the first time, to choose whose philosophy they like more: one that exalts Make America Great Again conservatism or one designed to appeal far beyond that base.

“It’s reflective of the challenges that Republicans have in every primary in the country,” said Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chair who considered running for governor of Maryland himself and did not endorse a candidate.

“Those are the battle lines Trump and his supporters have drawn,” Steele said. “Where do we stand now in 2022? Are we still in a Trump era? He’s got a great deal of influence still.”

This month, a poll showed 44% of Maryland’s Republican primary voters were undecided, and the rest were split between Cox and Hogan-backed Schulz.

“No one is casting an anti-Hogan vote. A lot of people who support Trump support Hogan, There’s a lot of crossover,” said Mileah Kromer, a pollster and an associate professor of political science at Goucher College. “The question is whether some Maryland voters will expressly want to cast a pro-Trump vote.”

Democrats are rooting for Trump-endorsed Cox to win.

The Democratic Governors Association, which views Maryland as its best shot to flip a governorship this season, poured $2 million in the race already, according to campaign finance reports. The association mailed literature and aired ads promoting Cox’s ties to Trump, highlighting Cox’s skepticism about the 2020 election results and saying he would “protect the Second Amendment at all costs” and is “100% pro-life.”

The DGA, which has targeted Trump-backed candidates in other states with mixed results, denies it is propping up Cox. The organization says it’s merely getting an early start on the general election, when analysts predict strong head winds for Democrats with high inflation on voters’ minds and President Joe Biden’s approval ratings at record lows.

But other Democrats – and Hogan – see a Cox candidacy as an easy general election fight in a state where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 registration advantage and voters support abortion rights, gun control and elected Biden by a 33-point margin in 2020.

Schulz, Hogan’s former commerce and labor secretary, has largely hewed to his electoral playbook. She emphasizes pocketbook issues and crime reduction while dodging divisive social topics as settled matters, including saying she would not change abortion laws approved by voters – even though, as a state lawmaker, she tried to weaken them.

The approach dovetails with what Hogan has called a battle for the soul of the Republican Party: emphasizing pragmatism alongside traditional conservative values and trying to sell those values to moderate voters.

Her campaign is staffed by many Hogan alums, she’s a longtime friend of the governor and helped launch his 2014 upset win. She has raised dramatically more money than Cox, but the resources haven’t translated into a bump in the polls.

On the campaign trail, she emphasizes what’s possible for Republicans in a deeply blue state: “Unlike my opponent Dan Cox, I don’t lie to Marylanders,” she said at a Thursday news conference.

She has openly called Cox “a nut” and “pathological liar” and emphasized her general election chances as a key selling point to conservatives, saying she’s the only thing standing between voters and a liberal governor eager to raise their taxes and pull the state further to the left.

Cox, a general practice lawyer and one-term state lawmaker, has embraced Trump-style rhetoric and tied Schulz to Hogan, even as he developed his own campaign platform to “restore freedom.”

In his latest fundraising email, Cox asked supporters, “Did you know that Maryland politics is impacting the entire nation, and in fact the world?”

He said Hogan and Schulz “misused the Wuhan virus” for coronavirus restrictions as a political tool to hurt Trump and accused Schulz of “suffocating the constitution.” In other messages, Cox, a father of nine, has warned that “our schools are being used as indoctrination centers to brainwash our children’s minds about their own bodies.”

The potency of Trump’s endorsements this cycle is subject to debate. While his record overall is mixed, candidates in narrow circumstances like Cox’s have fared particularly well: Of the five candidates seeking open Republican governor’s seats in races so far, four of Trump’s favorites have won. Maryland is the only test of his endorsements this month.

Cox has focused on parental control over education curriculum (particularly on race and sexuality), upending abortion protections, barring transgender athletes from women’s sports, and weakening gun laws. His anti-Hogan messages are a smaller yet forceful part of his campaign and tap into conservative outrage about coronavirus-related restrictions.

He unsuccessfully sued the Hogan administration over the restrictions, and, in a failed court case, he represented a voter tossed out of a precinct for not wearing a mask in 2020. He also unsuccessfully attempted to impeach Hogan over coronavirus restrictions.

Cox has promised a “forensic audit” of the 2020 election, which Trump lost in Maryland 32% to Biden’s 65%. Cox helped charter buses to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and called Vice President Mike Pence a traitor on Twitter that day, although he later denounced “mob violence,” deleted the tweet and expressed regret about his language while facing a legislative ethics inquiry.

When Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, interviewed Cox on his show recently, Bannon raised the question of electability in November, telling Cox, “the rap on you is that you can win a primary, but you can’t win a general.”

Cox responded that Democrats would vote for him by the thousands just as suburban women and voters seeking more control over public schooling last year helped buoy Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to victory. In Maryland, Cox said, “moms and mama bears are out right now to protect their children.”

He did not respond to multiple interview requests. There are two other candidates on the GOP ballot, although both have polled in the single digits: disbarred attorney and colorful perennial candidate Robin Ficker; and attorney Joe Werner.

Even though registered Republicans represent less than a quarter of Maryland voters, Republicans have won three out of the last five governor’s races, largely by nominating moderates who could appeal to independents and some conservative Democrats. In late May, Maryland Republican Party Chairman Dirk Haire wrote an opinion piece tacitly endorsing Schulz, talking about the electoral successes of Republican women and describing a successful hypothetical candidate that matches her attributes.

“The road map for success for Maryland Republicans is clear. If we nominate approachable, credible, and likable candidates who effectively advocate for common- sense conservative solutions, then we will be historically successful,” Haire wrote. “Most independents and even some Democrats in Maryland have already shown they will vote for Republican candidates like this – it’s our job to make sure they are on the ballot.”

Some Republican officials have chosen to stay out of the governor’s race rather than pick a side and risk alienating voters.

“I didn’t want to get involved in a contested primary. What good does that do me?” said state Sen. Michael J. Hough, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary for Frederick County Executive. He said people hold a grudges: “In Republican primaries, I’ve discovered the best thing to do is stay out.”

But others say their constituents wouldn’t tolerate backing Hogan’s pick over Trump’s. In Del. Ric Metzgar’s southeastern Baltimore County district that used to be home to Bethlehem Steel, Metzgar said he backed Hogan early in his tenure but became disillusioned as the governor criticized Trump and seemed to distance himself from the Republican base.

“I’m really not happy with Governor Hogan calling Dan Cox a wack-job,” Metzgar (R) said. “That was just so inappropriate, like fifth-grade stuff.”

He said he would have considered backing Schulz if she had distanced herself from Hogan. “I think that the folks have said that if that’s Kelly’s message, it’s time to move on.”

Maryland’s Republican primary voters tell pollsters they like Trump more than Hogan, but they’re divided on who should lead the party. A June 28 Goucher Poll found 78% of Republican primary voters approved of Trump, compared with 67% who approved of Hogan. But the poll also found division in future of party: 48% say GOP should be led by Trump, and 48% said it’s time for new leadership.

Hogan spent the past week positioning himself as a potential national party leader, touring New England and promoting his inflation-reduction plan in a New Hampshire town hall. His visit to the first-in-the-nation primary state follows meetings with national donors and a high-profile speaking engagement, where Hogan has cast himself as a conservative in the Reagan mold trying to rebuild a party sullied by Trump.

But Hogan has downplayed the primary as proxy war between him and Trump. Asked about it by Fox News this week, Hogan, disagreed, saying that “each race really comes down to the candidates themselves.”