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Democrats got what they wanted in Maryland: a Trump-backed GOP nominee for governor

Dan Cox, a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, reacts to his primary win on July 19, 2022 in Emmitsburg, Maryland. | Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Their chances of retaking the governor’s mansion just got better.

In a year that is otherwise shaping up to be dismal for Democrats nationally, Maryland represents a potential bright spot with a competitive race to determine the successor to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is term-limited.

According to the Cook Political Report, Maryland is Democrats’ second-best chance at a pickup for a governor’s office after Massachusetts, where Republican incumbent Gov. Charlie Baker isn’t seeking a third term.

On Tuesday, Dan Cox — the GOP candidate endorsed by former President Donald Trump and favored by Maryland Democrats — won the GOP nomination over his rival, Kelly Schulz. That’s a relief to Democrats who feared going up against Schulz, who previously served as Hogan’s labor and commerce secretary and who had the bipartisanly popular Hogan’s endorsement.

On the Democratic side, the race was still too close to call as of Wednesday morning; according to a June Goucher College poll, the three Democratic frontrunners in the crowded, nine-way primary were state Comptroller Peter Franchot; Tom Perez, the former US labor secretary and head of the Democratic National Committee who’s being supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; and Wes Moore, a bestselling author backed by Oprah Winfrey. If Perez or Moore wins, they could become the first person of color to serve as Maryland’s governor.

The Republican primary had been a kind of proxy battle between Hogan and Trump. Hogan, who is weighing a 2024 presidential bid, attracted Trump’s ire as one of only a few Republicans who have openly criticized the former president, notably for his pandemic response and attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Trump has shot back with his own attacks, calling Hogan a “shutdown RINO” (Republican in name only) on Monday for implementing pandemic-related lockdowns in 2020.

While Trump’s endorsement has helped most Republican candidates win their party’s nomination, Trump-backed candidates haven’t had any success challenging incumbent GOP governors. Trump didn’t directly challenge Hogan in Maryland, but this time, his candidate came out on top.

The outcome of the GOP primary is good news for Democrats

Democrats haven’t held the governor’s office since 2010, but there’s good reason for them to be confident heading into the fall now that Cox has won the GOP nomination. President Joe Biden won the state by more than 30 percentage points in 2020, and there are more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans.

Cox, who sued Hogan over his pandemic policies and tried to impeach him, may have created a powerful enemy in Hogan; some Democrats hope the governor will help their party capture his anti-Trump Republican supporters. Hogan has some of the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country, running behind only Wyoming Republican Gov. Mark Gordon, Vermont Republican Gov. Phil Scott, and Baker, with a 70 percent approval rating in a Morning Consult poll published on Tuesday. And half of Republican voters in the state said they would consider voting for Hogan if he runs for president in 2024, almost certainly against Trump, according to a poll conducted last month by Goucher College in partnership with WYPR and the Baltimore Banner.

If there is reason for Democrats to be nervous, it’s that no candidate has really been able to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack in the primary, and that could make it harder for the ultimate winner to energize voters ahead of November. None polled above 16 percent among primary voters in the Goucher College survey. In addition to Franchot, Perez, and Moore, the Democratic slate also features Obama-era Education Secretary John King, former state Attorney General Doug Gansler, and former nonprofit executive Jon Baron.

But this was the GOP primary outcome that Democrats were hoping for. Maryland Democrats believe Cox is too far to the right to win a statewide race, and that he has no chance of winning over the Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who voted for Hogan. The Democratic Governors Association boosted Cox, launching an ad campaign in the final weeks before the primaries that linked him to Trump and played up his conservative bona fides. The campaign criticizes him for being “100 percent pro-life” and for “refusing to support any federal restrictions” on guns.

It’s one of many 2022 races nationwide where Democrats have tried to meddle in Republican primaries on behalf of the more far-right candidates, which they think will be easier to beat in the fall. In the Illinois Republican primary for governor, for instance, incumbent Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association, which he helps fund using his billion-dollar fortune, spent almost $35 million total trying to paint state Sen. Darren Bailey, a pro-Trump Republican, as the most conservative candidate in the race. Ultimately, Bailey handily won the nomination.

That strategy hasn’t always worked. In the GOP primary for Colorado’s US Senate seat, Democratic groups spent roughly $4 million on ads designed to make far-right candidate Ron Hanks more appealing to GOP voters over his more moderate opponent, Joe O’Dea, who nevertheless won the nomination.

Democrats are hoping that their efforts ultimately pay off in Maryland, and that they give them a relatively easy path to a new governorship in the fall.

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