Sixteen miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Dan Cox was celebrating.
The Maryland candidate for governor took the stage, basking in the victory of a campaign built on ultraconservative policies like strict anti-abortion laws and the outlawing of any kind of mask or vaccine mandates, of targeting transgender issues in schools and questioning the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
“I am so proud and privileged to be here tonight on the night when we take Pennsylvania back for freedom, when we take our country back for secure elections, for security in our own bodies — making sure that mandates are no more,” Cox told the Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, crowd on the night Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano won his state’s Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Maryland — Cox said in a tweet the following day — is next.
But in a state that elected moderate Republican Gov. Larry Hogan twice and went for Democratic President Joe Biden by huge margins, does an unconventional far-right candidate like Cox stand a chance?
“It would be difficult for me to believe that there are many Republican voters who have paid any real attention to Maryland politics who see a path for Cox to win statewide,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “That’s among the greatest things that weighs against Cox — the electability factor. It’s just not there.”
Cox has a strikingly similar anti-establishment, anti-government platform to Mastriano’s. They’ve also interacted frequently — speaking April 23 at a Gettysburg gathering filled with QAnon themes and “prophecies,” dining together with their wives, endorsing one another and winning the support of former GOP President Donald Trump.
And even as some Trump-endorsed candidates have come up short in recent primaries, Cox has doubled down. After Mastriano’s Pennsylvania primary victory on May 17, Cox announced a rally and fundraiser for himself featuring Mastriano on Saturday in Hampstead.
In a May 19 email to supporters, Cox lauded Mastriano for winning despite being “smeared by the RINO [Republicans in Name Only] establishment” and getting outspent — a not-so-subtle comparison to his own campaign, which is facing attack ads from a better-funded candidate backed by the incumbent Hogan.
After eight years of Hogan’s administration and two years of government led COVID-19 mitigation, Cox’s brand of politics is “refreshing beyond measure” to supporters like Kate Sullivan, a Baltimore County Republican who has helped organize meetings and protests against mask and vaccine requirements in schools.
Candidates like Cox “present actual true freedom, especially in an environment where everyone has felt so thwarted and locked down and told to do this and told to do that,” Sullivan said.
Polling from Baltimore Sun Media and the University of Baltimore indicates that sentiment may be catching. With 42% of Republican voters undecided, Cox trailed former state Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz, 21% to 27%, among likely primary voters while both candidates showed some signs of momentum as of June 2.
Hogan, who is limited to two terms and has endorsed Schulz, secured solid wins among Republican voters in 2014 and 2018, while avoiding typical conservative messaging on issues such as abortion and guns, and while being defiantly critical of Trump. Hogan maintains widespread approval ratings, according to polls as recent as this spring.
Cox has taken a decidedly different path.
A first-term state delegate representing Frederick County, he was the prime sponsor of bills this year that would have severely restricted abortion access, voided new federal gun laws within the state, prohibited governors from implementing pandemic mitigation measures, impeached Hogan, and given parents more control over schools. None passed the General Assembly, where Democrats enjoy a two-thirds majority.
Cox’s Maryland Arms Protection Act attempted to make any new gun laws under Biden unenforceable.
His Consent of the Governed Act tried to make it illegal for a governor to force citizens to stay in their homes, wear a mask, get a vaccine or “be forced under penalty of law to make any other health decision.”
Another one of his bills would have prohibited physicians from performing an abortion once they detect a “fetal heartbeat.” Other states have passed similar bills to restrict abortion access to as early as six weeks in pregnancy. Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly instead expanded abortion access this year in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
Cox’s strict anti-abortion position “is not an issue that’s going to win him any inroads” in Maryland, said Mileah Kromer, associate professor of political science at Goucher College. It may be a perennial issue for Republican voters, but Hogan’s stance on the subject was good enough for them and Schulz is trying to replicate it, Kromer said. Schulz supported laws restricting abortion while in the House of Delegates, but said she would not do anything in office to change state law on the issue.
Statewide polls have shown a minority of voters support Cox’s stances on abortion and other issues.
Nine out of 10 Democrats and eight out of 10 Republicans believe abortion should remain legal in some or all circumstances, according the recent Sun/UB poll. Of the Republicans, 18% said it should be legal under any circumstances, 62% said it should be legal under certain circumstances and 15% said it should be illegal in all circumstances.
On gun laws, there is once again a renewed nationwide effort to reduce gun violence after mass shootings at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school left 21 people dead and another at a Buffalo, New York grocery store where 10 people were killed. National polling in the last month has found a majority of Americans favor a ban on AR-15 rifles, along with other gun measures, though a majority of Republicans stand opposed.
In Maryland, about half Republican primary voters in the Sun/UB poll said the state’s gun laws are strict enough, a quarter said gun laws should be stronger and another quarter said it should be easier to buy and carry guns.
A statewide Goucher College poll in March also showed differences in the public’s thoughts on COVID-19 mitigation, compared to Cox’s platform. Slightly more adults believed pandemic restrictions, including mask mandates, were being lifted “too quickly,” rather than “too slowly,” at 28% and 25%, respectively. A plurality of 44% said restrictions were ending at about the right pace. More than two-thirds of residents gave Hogan high marks for his handling of the pandemic.
Cox’s campaign did not respond to interview requests.
Political scientists say primary voters tend to lean further to the extremes, with more conservative Republicans and more liberal Democrats turning out to vote. That may be especially true in a sleepy, low-turnout election, which some are expecting for Maryland’s midsummer primary with few big-name incumbents on the July 19 ballot.
“This gives Dan Cox a greater chance,” said Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University. “But there’s got to be an element of practicality for Republicans to realize this would be the death knell [in the general election].”
With Democrats holding a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage statewide, a Republican nominee needs moderate conservatives and some Democrats to get them over the finish line in November.
Still, Cox and his supporters have claimed something similar to what Trump and his supporters called the “silent majority.” People of all kinds are upset — more so than ever — and they’re coming out of the woodwork to stand up for the cause, they say.
“COVID, the last two years, exposed a lot of the ways that our government was overreaching. And I think up until COVID, that was a concept that people didn’t really understand,” said Sullivan. “The average everyday person did not understand until [authorities] came for their jobs because they weren’t vaccinated, and [until] their children were put in masks.”
Tony DeCesare said there’s been an “organic” connection between a grassroots group he and Sullivan run, called Patriot Club of America, and Cox’s campaign. They’re not making an endorsement, he said, but Cox meshes well with the Patriot Club’s three main planks: keeping kids in school during the pandemic, supporting law enforcement, and strengthening voter integrity.
“He’s a pro-Constitution guy. He’s about anti-mandates of any kind,” DeCesare said.
“Dan has said straight up the whole mail-in ballot thing, it creates an opportunity for disaster. You see it every day,” DeCesare said, pointing to a prolonged effort to determine a winner, with a razor-thin margin, in last month’s U.S. Senate primary in Pennsylvania.
Dozens of court cases and investigations across the country produced no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
But claiming the election was rigged has been one of the motivating factors for Trump’s endorsements in the 2022 primaries, though his support has had mixed results in competitive GOP races. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger won last month against Trump-backed opponents in a state that was at the center of the former president’s election fraud claims.
Cox has explicitly questioned the 2020 election results in Maryland and in Pennsylvania, where he spent time helping Trump’s team look for unsubstantiated cases of fraud in the days after the election.
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He also helped organize buses to Washington, D.C., on the day of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. He has said he and his group never made it to the Capitol.
Addressing a crowd of conservative Christians in April at a Patriots Arise for God and Country conference in Gettysburg, Cox said he “saw the fraud with my own eyes” in Philadelphia and he suggested the turnout for Biden in Maryland was not real.
“Biden allegedly came in heavy in Maryland,” Cox told the crowd. “It’s possible President Trump could have looked very good on election, after the election, in Maryland. And how would that have looked to Pennsylvania? Everybody would have been wondering how did Biden win Pennsylvania if Trump almost won Maryland? So, that’s what I think was going on. Obviously, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m looking at the facts. And the facts point to this. And we’re gonna change that.”
The two-day conference was organized by a couple, Francine and Allen Fosdick, who have promoted QAnon conspiracy theories, in which followers believe a global cabal of Democrats engage in child sex trafficking and other crimes. A video shown at the conference included images of the Sept. 11 attacks with the words “false flags” and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination with the description “knew too much,” among other conspiracy theories.
An hour after Cox’s Pennsylvania speech — which also featured an attack on teaching transgender issues in schools and an aside that Trump had called him the night before — Cox returned to the stage. He stood alongside Mastriano and his wife, joining them and others for a rousing group prayer led by Julie Green, a self-described prophet who had just told the audience that Trump — “the real president” — is “coming back.”
Cox, head bowed and hands folded, waited as Green grabbed each of their faces with her hands and preached.
“Father, God, we thank you that you are the God and you are in control,” she said as she grabbed Cox’s face. “We thank you that every plot, plan and scheme of the devil is failing right now.”