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Like many GOP battles around the country this year, the gubernatorial primary in Maryland features a Trump backed candidate, Del. Daniel Cox (R), squaring off against someone from what used to be called the establishment wing of the party, former Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz.
What’s different in Maryland is that Schulz is backed by outgoing Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), a frequent Trump critic who has increasingly broadened his criticisms of the former president and encouraged his party to go in a different direction.
The Schulz campaign’s early reluctance to engage fully with the Frederick County delegate appeared designed to avoid alienating the former president’s many supporters, who she will need in the general election if she is the nominee — and to minimize whatever threat Cox presented to Schulz, the perceived frontrunner and favorite of the GOP establishment.
Her campaign has adopted a noticeably more assertive stance regarding her main rival in recent weeks. Although the candidate herself rarely mentions him by name, her camp has begun slamming Cox with gusto.
In March, the Schulz campaign launched two websites. One, literallydancox.com, attempts to use Cox’s own words against him. The site juxtaposes clips of the lawmaker from the early weeks of the pandemic, in which he appears to support restrictions on social interactions, with more recent video of him railing against them. The ad labels him a “hypocrite” for changing his position after launching his gubernatorial candidacy.
A second Schulz site, badbiznoproblem.com, says that Cox and his running mate, attorney and conservative activist Gordana Schifanelli, are running businesses that have had “ethical” issues. “Gordana Schifanelli’s financial consulting firm… AllSource Wealth Management LLC was also cited by regulators for ‘engaging in dishonest and unethical practices’ and fined in 2015,” the site claims, citing state records.
The Schulz campaign ramped up its attacks on Cox further starting in late April, when it began sending barbed emails to Maryland political reporters on a regular basis. Dubbed “The Demkiw Files” and written by communications director Mike Demkiw, a skilled political researcher, the emails spotlight Cox’s actions and comments in a no-holds-barred manner.
The series started off with a bang. “Dan Cox Is A Lunatic And The Entire MD Press Corps Is Ignoring It,” read the headline on issue #1. The email was accompanied by the 10 “craziest things” Cox and Schifanelli have said in recent years.
Making the cut: a Cox tweet that Schulz supports “the Marxist indoctrination and sexualization of your kids in school.” Also: Cox’s claim that state leaders who “wanted to defend their legacy of lockdowns” would “want to indoctrinate your child into confusion of not knowing if they are a boy or a girl — and worse — they want to groom them for chemical castration and sexual growth hormone blocks beginning in Pre-K.”
Email #6 takes Cox to task for calling former Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor” and for “liking” a tweet in which Hogan is called “A LIAR AND TRAITOR TO OUR PARTY STATE AND PRESIDENT TRUMP.” Schifanelli catches flak for tweeting that “globalist mafia is destroying our country – it’s obvious and the world knows it. Globalist fascists have infested Western countries.”
Another missive faults Cox, a defense attorney, for representing an Easton man who pled guilty to a third-degree sex offense involving a 13-year-old. The defendant entered an Alford plea.
Cox declined to be interviewed regarding the Schulz campaign’s statements about him, despite repeated requests for an interview over several days.
In an email on Monday, Cox wrote: “Sadly, my opponent has once again chosen the path of opposing the constitutional rights of all Marylanders just like she has for the last two years. She won’t debate me while the People of Maryland are who she won’t appear in front of and they deserve better than her actions. That is another reason why we will win on July 19 in a landslide and we will once again move Maryland forward in liberty and secure elections.”
Republican strategist Jim Dornan, who is between assignments now but has worked for Schulz in the past, called the campaign’s direct-attack approach “brilliant.”
“Cox has done so many insane things,” he said. “Kelly’s right to point it out.”
Recent editions of the Demkiw Files have gone deep on a Q-Anon style conference in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in late April at which Cox was a headline speaker.
The event, “Patriots Arise For God Family and Country,” was described by the Schulz camp as a gathering of “insane QAnon conspiracy theorists.” They were not alone.
A Philadelphia Inquirer report described an opening video at the gathering as “a kind of greatest hits of conspiracy theories that have circulated for decades. It showed images of the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11 — with the label ‘false flags.’ It claimed John F. Kennedy was assassinated because he ‘knew too much’ and posed a ‘high risk of cabal exposure,’ that vaccines amount to ‘genocide therapy,’ and that Hitler faked his death. It offered other conspiracy theories about the atomic bomb, the Spanish flu, 5G, the 2008 financial crisis — and, of course, the 2020 election.”
“It’s clear that Dan Cox is unfit for office,” Demkiw concluded. “But his name is on the ballot, and his participation in this conference warrants serious questions, which he should have to answer for.”
Dornan called the two-day conference “nonsense” and “garbage.”
“If this stuff is not going to get covered, then it’s the campaign’s responsibility to make sure voters are aware,” he said.
Demkiw pledged to update his Top 10 list frequently, “because they are clearly unstable people who spout a new conspiracy theory and insanity every week.”
The Schulz campaign’s willingness to go after Cox forcefully represents a significant shift from its early handling of its unorthodox rival. Schulz kept such a low profile in the early months of her campaign, the “news” page of her website would go months at a time without updates. (“Kelly Schulz has been silent so long she might as well not be running,” a Democratic Governors Association aide quipped at the time.)
Even supporters found that early cautiousness troubling. They noted that Hogan, Schulz’s most high-profile supporter (and fundraiser), had no trouble calling Cox out in blunt fashion. The governor famously denounced Cox as a “Q-Anon whack job” at a State House press conference last year, and he has taken steps to raise his profile as a leader of the non-Trump wing of the party nationally.
Perhaps most remarkably, Schulz was silent when Cox filed an impeachment resolution against Hogan, her mentor and friend, in February. The resolution — which sought a Senate trial on Hogan’s alleged “malfeasance in office, misuse of police power, violations of the separations of powers, theft of the people’s Liberty and property, deprivation of the religious liberties of the people, and abuse of power under false pretenses” — was summarily rejected by members of both parties in the House Rules Committee after failing to attract any cosponsors. Cox himself ducked reporters’ inquiries about it.
Although the Schulz campaign issued a statement from an outside adviser calling Cox “crazy” and “stupid,” the candidate herself was silent on the issue.
“I think you could see that that was a missed opportunity by the Schulz campaign,” said Melissa Deckman, the Louis L. Goldstein professor of public affairs at Washington College, at the time.
“Part of Kelly Schulz’s strategy has really been to align herself as closely as she can with Larry Hogan — and so, yes, when Dan Cox says something so egregious, why not draw attention to that?”
Former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, who served as Maryland lieutenant governor in the early 2000s, sounded a similar theme shortly after the impeachment resolution was filed.
“You’ve been part of an administration for quite some time,” Steele said of Schulz. “And if you can’t come out and say ‘a) this is bullshit, and b) the governor is laughing at this, I’m laughing at this, the state is laughing at this,’ then what’s the point?”
There are four Republicans running in gubernatorial primary: Cox, Schulz and two attorneys who have run for office frequently — Robin Ficker of Montgomery County and Joe Werner of Baltimore County.
The main action, observers of all stripes agree, pits the Hogan-endorsed Schulz against the Trump-endorsed Cox. Schulz is perceived as being more likely to attract crossover voters in the general election in the same manner that propelled Hogan’s two victories. Trump’s endorsement of Cox was expected to boost his fundraising efforts, though it is not clear that that has panned out.
There has been a dearth of publicly available polling.
In September, Maryland Matters columnist Frank A. DeFilippo suggested that “Schulz had better toughen her talk if she hopes to combat Cox’s grab-‘em-by-the-throat messaging.” Her campaign’s newfound boldness suggests she has signed on to that strategy in a big way.
“Good campaigns, part of what we do is we try to set the narrative for the day,” said Demkiw in an interview. “Raising awareness, holding (Cox) accountable for his actions, while also touting all the positive things that Kelly is doing.”
If Cox is eager to confront Schulz about her hardball tactics face-to-face, he’s going to need to get creative. Her campaign said in a statement on Monday that “Kelly is not going to share a debate stage and give a platform” to Cox’s views.
While continuing to confine most of her appearances to Republican and business groups and friendly radio and TV stations, Schulz has begun to to increase her public profile and an agenda that, broadly speaking, looks a lot like Hogan’s, with an emphasis on keeping taxes low, business development, fighting crime, and boosting parental rights in education policy debates.
Trump says Cox is “doing GREAT”
Cox flew to Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s Florida estate, last week, his campaign announced Tuesday.
The candidate declined to be interviewed about the meeting, but the campaign released a statement in which Trump said Cox is “MAGA all the way — unlike his opponent, Kelly Schulz, who was handpicked by her ‘boss,’ RINO Larry Hogan, who has been terrible for our Country and is against the America First Movement.”
Trump described Cox as an advocate of lower taxes, Second Amendment rights and “no more lockdowns.”
The former president also continued to push unfounded theories about the 2020 campaign.
“He fought against the Rigged Presidential Election every step of the way, and will bring secure Elections back to Maryland,” Trump said. “Dan Cox has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” Maryland’s 2022 elections were not the subject of any credible challenge, though Cox suggested to the gathering in Gettysburg that if early-voting ballots had been excluded, Trump would have come close to defeating Biden here.
In the statement, Cox said he told Trump that “the latest polling shows we are winning big in the GOP Primary with his endorsement.” A spokeswoman declined to share details of the campaign’s polling.
“We also discussed how the election was rigged and how we must secure it, our fight to stop the illegal entry of ineligible foreign nationals being shipped here by the Hogan-Kelly agreement with Biden’s ‘catch and release’ dangerous program, and our campaign platform of defending families and education choice, ending CRT and sexual indoctrination in Pre-K through 12, and lowering property tax assessments and income taxes that are causing families to leave Maryland,” Cox said.
Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.