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Anne Arundel Republicans express mixed opinions after Trump-backed Dan Cox wins GOP nomination for governor

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While some Anne Arundel County Republicans say they could never support an extreme candidate like Trump-backed state Del. Dan Cox who won the party’s gubernatorial primary, others say the cost of not being unified behind him could be detrimental for the party and state.

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Scott Gibson, a former Republican candidate for Annapolis City Council, said he was “utterly stunned” by the primary results, which left him questioning who to support in the general election and fearful for the future of the Republican Party.

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“There is no circumstance in which I support Dan Cox in the general,” Gibson said last week, days after Cox won a decisive 10-percentage-point victory over former Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz, who was endorsed by Gov. Larry Hogan. “I am thinking I need to get to know the Democratic nominee a lot better.”

As strongly conservative as Gibson considers himself, he said a Cox-led state scares him far more than a Maryland led by Wes Moore, the author and nonprofit leader who won the Democratic nomination for governor.

Other, more center-leaning Republicans are still devoted followers of Hogan, like Gibson, who said he fears the days of a Hogan-style, more moderate Republican electorate in Maryland are gone and a more extreme brand of conservatism is the future of the party in the state.

Perhaps that’s a good thing, said Nathan Volke, a County Council member from Pasadena who is running unopposed to reclaim his District 3 seat. Volke voted for Cox in the primary, saying he likes Cox’s vision for Maryland.

“I definitely thought he was more in line with where Republican voters are right now,” he said. “They want someone who is going to stand up for them and I felt like he was going to do that.”

Due to the high price of gas and rampant inflation, things Volke thinks the Democratic Party is getting rightfully criticized for, he foresees success for Republicans up and down the ticket.

“The governor came out, he endorsed Kelly Schulz. He campaigned with Kelly Schulz. I think he even probably helped to direct some of his donors to Kelly Schulz and even with the money and the endorsement and the campaigning she still was beaten pretty thoroughly by Dan Cox,” he said. “I think that tells you where the Maryland Republican Party is right now.”

Brian Griffiths, an Anne Arundel conservative commentator and Capital columnist, said Cox’s nomination will certainly have a ripple effect in the down-ballot races in the legislature. In some more far-right or rural parts of the state an endorsement from Cox could be an asset, but in more politically divided areas showing unity with Cox could repel voters.

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“Anybody who wants to win in a competitive district needs to run like hell in the other direction from Dan Cox,” said Griffiths, who lost his race for Anne Arundel County’s Republican Central Committee in this year’s primary.

In a post on his website The Duckpin, Griffiths wrote that he felt both Cox and the Republican nominee for attorney general Michael Peroutka, a former Anne Arundel County Council member, were unqualified for their offices and incapable of winning. He ended his post saying he would be disaffiliating with the Republican Party and registering as an unaffiliated voter.

Peroutka has advocated for the Southern states to secede and is a former member of the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group.

Gibson said he too was considering registering as unaffiliated.

But other Republican leaders say it’s important the whole party stands behind their nominee.

“The party will support its candidates up and down the ballot,” said Maryland Republican Party Chair Dirk Haire. “We respect the decisions of our Republican primary voters.”

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Haire’s wife Jessica Haire, an Anne Arundel County Council member from Edgewater, is currently leading in the race to win the party’s nomination for county executive against her next closest challenger former Del. Herb McMillan. The winner of that race will go on to face Democratic incumbent Steuart Pittman.

Local Republican groups are divided on the matter of Cox, said Severna Park Republican Women President Amy Leahy. It will be her mission over the next three months to connect with other county conservatives and get them to back Cox, she said.

“There are a lot of conflicting thoughts among the local Republicans,” she said. “If we have a Democrat in the seat I think we’re going to see taxes going up again as they did under Martin O’Malley. I also think a lot of parents are concerned with what’s happening in the school system and I think the Republicans will be more inclined to give parents more of a voice in what’s happening with their children in schools.”

If a Democrat were to win they likely wouldn’t deal with these issues like increasing tax rates and liberal agendas in schools, Leahy said.

One of her biggest obstacles to getting people to support Cox is Hogan announcing he would not support him, Leahy said. Hogan has called Cox a “conspiracy-theory-believing QAnon whack-job,” and said he fears Cox’s nomination could result in negative outcomes for down-ballot Republican races.

“I mean, there isn’t going to be much of a campaign,” Hogan told The Baltimore Sun at an event Thursday. “It’s going to be — the Democratic nominee is going to be the next governor.”

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Leahy said she’s concerned about how this could affect the votes of more centrist Democrats who have supported Hogan in the past.

“Some people are pretty upset with Larry Hogan,” Leahy said. “He has such a huge following among Democrats and obviously we’re hoping we can get some Democrats on board with supporting Dan Cox but that’s not a given.”

One person who isn’t concerned about his bipartisan appeal is Cox, himself, who said he thinks he can attract people of all parties who are frustrated by President Joe Biden’s leadership.

“We ran a race against the establishment of Maryland,” Cox told The Baltimore Sun. “We ran a positive race to do our best to talk about the issues. And it won and it’s going to win again in November.”

Given that the core of Maryland’s top Republicans backed Schulz, an acolyte of Hogan, the next move for many within the party is fraught.

Schulz promised a familiar playbook, one that gave Hogan historic wins and enduring popularity by emphasizing pocketbook issues and avoiding ultraconservative messaging on topics like abortion, guns and false claims of election fraud. In Cox, Republican candidates are now looking at a leader who has instead made those more extreme positions — ones that polling shows the vast majority of Marylanders reject — the focal points of his campaign.

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Cox’s positions and endorsement from former President Donald Trump mean he faces long odds to become governor of a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans about 2-to-1 and where Trump lost by 33 percentage points in 2020. His presence at the top of the ballot — and with it, his redirection of a strategy that made Republicans successful statewide — could complicate races for other Republicans who hope to take advantage of an expected wave of GOP gains in national midterm elections in November.

“Down-ballot Republicans are just really in terrible shape,” said Richard Vatz, a Towson University professor of rhetoric and communication.

Vatz, a conservative who is a registered independent, said Cox’s victory is an “unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party.” Some established figures like U.S. Rep. Andy Harris — Maryland’s lone Republican member of Congress — will likely be unaffected, Vatz said, but others who were already facing steep election odds in competitive districts will have a more difficult time with Cox at the top of the ticket.

Republicans have little power in Maryland — aside from their disadvantage in the congressional delegation, they’re outnumbered by a Democratic supermajority in the General Assembly. Holding the governor’s office would provide the GOP broad control over how the state budget is spent, and Republicans argue they are needed as a counter to Democrats’ power.

It might help some down-ballot candidates if Cox focuses on issues like the economy and education, Vatz said. But a long list of Cox’s positions, statements and actions — from calling then-Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor” for not helping Trump overturn the 2020 election to his attempted impeachment of Hogan over the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — will likely doom his and other campaigns, Vatz said.

Cox is seeking a four-year term that begins Jan. 18. The annual salary for the governor next year will be $184,000.

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Aside from Schulz, the other Republicans in the governor’s race, who combined for less than 4% of the vote, threw their support behind Cox: Joe Werner, a lawyer from Baltimore County, and Robin Ficker, a former lawyer and perennial candidate. Ficker called Cox a “very bright, nice person” who he believes can win in November.

Also expressing support for Cox in the general election was Del. Neil Parrott, who won his Republican primary in Western Maryland for a rematch against Democratic U.S. Rep. David Trone in November.

Other GOP candidates declined to share any thoughts on Cox’s candidacy.

As the party moves forward to the general election, some leaders are leaning on the nation’s deep political polarization, focusing on Cox as a counterweight to a Democratic Party that Republicans cast as too far to the left.

Though Harris did not endorse Cox in the primary, the congressman indicated in a July 1 Facebook post that he would support whoever won.

“Any winner of the Republican primary would be far better for Marylanders as Governor than the ultraliberal extremist likely to emerge from the Democrat primary,” Harris wrote.

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Parrott, the Republican nominee in the 6th congressional district, called Cox “a clear contrast to the liberal agenda this coming November,” adding, “Maryland simply cannot afford to elect a Democrat governor this year.”

Former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who lives in Annapolis, said that sort of argument could win more votes from Democrats than many might expect.

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“There are a lot of Democrats unhappy with the direction of the country, especially nonprogressive Democrats,” Ehrlich said. “It’s a pretty good year to be a Republican.”

Cox said his campaign’s polling makes him hopeful the strategy will win votes. He said it shows that perhaps more than one in every four Democrats “says they want their freedoms back.”

“They agree that the lockdowns must end,” Cox said. “Well, no one else is saying like I’m saying that we are going to end that.”

Ehrlich suggested differences between Trump backers and more moderate Republicans are overblown, and that the real division in the party is about personality rather than philosophy.

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But there are others who say Cox’s win shows that the party will need to decide what it is to move forward, said WBAL-AM host Clarence Mitchell IV. Mitchell, who called Cox’s win “a setback” for the GOP and predicted Cox will lose, said the party will need new leaders to organize and energize it going forward. Given Hogan’s surprising success in 2014, he said that shouldn’t be seen as far-fetched.

“Is the Republican Party in this state going to be Trump?” Mitchell asked. “Or are they going to be Bob Ehrlich or Larry Hogan or [former U.S. Sen.] Charles ‘Mac’ Mathias?”