Dan Cox’s campaign for governor of Maryland got an early endorsement from Donald Trump last fall. And now, Democrats want Republican primary voters to know all about it.
The Democratic Governors Association launched a new ad Friday blasting Cox, a state lawmaker, for his ties to Trump, for being “100 percent pro-life” and for “refusing to support any federal restrictions” on guns. “Dan Cox: Too close to Trump, too conservative for Maryland,” the narrator intones.
But the end goal of the ad is not to sink Cox. Instead, Democrats are hoping to boost him in the July 19 Republican primary for governor, which has turned into a tight battle for the nomination with former state Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz — term-limited GOP Gov. Larry Hogan's preferred successor.
It is the latest iteration of a now increasingly common playbook for Democrats. In a handful of blue states — and especially in governor races — Democratic groups and campaigns have run ads boosting the more extreme Republican candidate in a primary, in hopes that they win the nomination and will be easier to beat in the general election in November.
Results have been mixed so far: The DGA and Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker successfully picked their opponent in Illinois, though they spent tens of millions of dollars to do so. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for that state’s open governor race, boosted state Sen. Doug Mastriano in the final days of the Republican primary there — but Mastriano was the GOP frontrunner even before that. And in Colorado, efforts to derail Republican candidates running for governor and Senate both fell flat.
But Maryland may have the thorniest primary of them all — an all-out proxy war between Trump and Hogan, a moderate blue-state Republican who has called on the GOP to chart a new course away from the former president. Trump’s early endorsement of Cox was quickly followed by Hogan going all-in for Schulz, a former state lawmaker who served in Hogan’s cabinet until earlier this year. Hogan endorsed Schulz, and much of his political network is working in some fashion to boost her campaign.
“It is not unexpected,” Schulz said of the DGA buy in an interview, citing Democratic meddling in races elsewhere. “The DGA would much rather spend $1 million now than $5 million in the general election” if she was the nominee.
The race between Schulz and Cox, which also includes two other lesser-known Republicans, remains close. A recent poll from The Baltimore Banner/WYPR/Goucher College had the two within the margin of error: Cox at 25 percent, Schulz at 22 percent. A 44 percent plurality of voters said they were undecided or didn’t know who they’d support in the primary.
And the DGA ad could have a major impact. The committee reserved at least $1.2 million worth of airtime, according to data from the ad tracking firm AdImpact — more than what Cox and Schulz have spent on advertising combined.
Trump has not rallied for Cox in the state, but he did call in to an event the candidate hosted late last month. “Dan is MAGA all the way, and I say that very strongly,” Trump told the crowd in a video posted by Cox’s campaign, “unlike his opponent named Kelly Schulz, who along with Larry Hogan is bad news.”
Even though Cox is tied in the recent poll of the primary, the DGA insists that it is just getting a jumpstart on attacking Cox ahead of November. “Given Cox’s frontrunner status and radical MAGA stances, we are starting the general election early and wasting no time to hold him accountable,” DGA spokesperson Sam Newton said in a statement.
The Democratic committee has antagonized Schulz throughout the primary, with the campaign and committee trading barbs through the media. (One recent press release subject line from the DGA: “Debate-Dodging Kelly Schulz Is Mad the DGA Has Sent 8 Press Releases Mentioning Her — Here’s #9.”) The ad buy represents a significant escalation, however.
“We see this as not just an attack on Kelly, but an attack on all Maryland Republicans,” said Doug Mayer, a longtime Hogan aide who is advising the Schulz campaign. “Because at the heart of what they’re saying is that Maryland Republicans are idiots. That they’re rubes, and a bunch of smarty pants in D.C. can fool them. … At the end of the day, they’re actually not fooling people.”
Mayer said he expected the Schulz campaign to talk a lot about the DGA’s ad campaign in the closing weeks of the race.
While Schulz is trying to continue the two-term Hogan’s legacy, whoever wins the GOP nomination is likely to be an underdog in the fall. Democrats view this governor race as one of their best pickup opportunities in the nation, with the popular Hogan off the ballot in a state that President Joe Biden won by over 30 points.
But the Democratic primary remains similarly undecided. A recent Banner/WYPR/Goucher poll of that jam-packed race found three candidates all in the mid-teens: state Comptroller Peter Franchot, author Wes Moore, and former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez.
Hogan blasted Democrats for elevating Cox at a Thursday press conference, calling their meddling grossly irresponsible.
“The Democrats are so scared of losing again, they are now enabling, emboldening and embracing a QAnon conspiracy theorist,” Hogan said, referring to Cox. “The people who scream all day long about democracy being at stake are willing to play Russian roulette with the Maryland statehouse, just to win an election.”
Cox’s campaign responded to an interview request with a lengthy statement accusing Schulz of colluding with Democrats, saying the data Schulz’s campaign circulated about the DGA’s ad buy was not public and proved they were working together. (In fact, TV ad data is available from private ad tracking firms and the FCC website.)
Cox also crashed Schulz and Hogan’s press conference on Thursday, according to Maryland Matters, “occasionally shouting back at the governor and his protege.”
And on Friday, Trump issued a statement that parroted Cox’s line about the DGA’s buy, calling it “all phony games.” He also called both Hogan and Schulz RINOs, and said Hogan was coming “to the rescue of his fellow ‘Never Trumper.’”
But Schulz clearly sees Hogan, who remains very popular with Maryland voters, as a strong asset to her campaign. “Marylanders — whether you're a Republican, an independent or a Democrat — they are happy with the way that the state is going and they know that another Republican that can keep checks and balances in the state … that’s what Marylanders are looking for,” she said.
State House Minority Leader Jason Buckel, a supporter of Schulz, said in an interview that the DGA’s efforts were an attempt to elevate a weaker candidate.
Buckel said that while he wasn’t critiquing Cox personally, his campaign wouldn’t have the “financial wherewithal” to be competitive in the general election.
“The truth of the matter is the Democrats know [Schulz] would be tough to beat,” Buckel said.