Maryland Republicans picked Del. Dan Cox, a first-term delegate who embraced Donald Trump’s rhetoric and tried to impeach Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, as their nominee for governor Tuesday, according to an Associated Press projection, elevating him into a contentious fight to keep control of the governor’s mansion in a deeply Democratic state.
The Republican primary race for governor tested the potency of the former president’s influence in a state that’s also backed the pragmatic conservatism of term-limited Hogan, who won twice by appealing to independents and Democrats. Outside Democratic groups flooded the airwaves with ads tying Cox to Trump in the final days of the race, hoping it would boost a candidate they viewed as ultimately easier to defeat.
“This is a fantastic night for freedom everywhere,” Cox told a cheering crowd as he declared victory.
Democrats, who are seeking to win back the governor’s mansion after eight years under Hogan, chose from a field of nine active candidates who presented voters a choice between a progressive with far-reaching goals on crime, climate, inflation and abortion rights or a moderate candidate more certain to win in November.
Best-selling author and political newcomer Wes Moore took an early lead over former U.S. labor secretary Tom Perez and Comptroller Peter Franchot. Hundreds of thousands of Democratic votes, including mail-in ballots, were uncounted.
“We are feeling good, we are feeling strong,” Moore said to thunderous applause from supporters at a party in Baltimore. “We are feeling good right now because we are standing in a group of believers, believers that we as a state can be bolder and can move faster.”
Moore said he would not declare victory “because we believe in counting every vote. … We are excited for all of those votes to be counted because when those votes are counted we feel very good about where we are going to be.”
Republican voters chose between Kelly Schulz, a former Hogan Cabinet secretary he heartily endorsed, and Cox, a “Make America Great Again” devotee whose campaign railed against abortion rights, pandemic shutdowns and vaccine mandates and sought to boost parental control in schools and particularly against sex education.
Cox declared victory at his Frederick County victory party, standing in front of a sign that read “Trump Endorsed Dan Cox.”
“Every single one of you deserve this win tonight,” Cox said. “We will never again give over our bodies, our churches, and our businesses to a lockdown state.”
Schulz hewed to Hogan’s playbook for a Republican winning in deep-blue Maryland, emphasizing pocketbook issues and battling rising crime, particularly in Baltimore, and saying that although she opposed abortion she wouldn’t seek to change existing protections.
Trump has remained popular among Maryland Republicans, but he lost the 2020 election in Maryland by more than 1 million votes. Cox has promised a forensic audit of that contest if elected in November.
Cox attended the Jan. 6, 2021, rally and called Vice President Mike Pence a traitor on Twitter that day, although he later denounced “mob violence,” deleted the tweet and expressed regret about his language while facing a legislative ethics inquiry.
At Cox’s watch party at an activity hall in Emmitsburg, about 100 people ate chicken wings, chips and watermelon off paper plates as a man strummed guitar and sang “God Bless the USA” and Fox News played on the TV screens dotting the room.
At Schulz headquarters in an Annapolis office park, when the early numbers coming in didn’t look as good as hoped, she acknowledged the deficit but encouraged supporters keep up hope, with more than 40,000 mail-in ballots not yet opened under a state law forbidding their tabulation before Thursday at 10 a.m.
“Right now we are behind in this race, but it is not over,” she said. “It is not over by a long shot.”
“It’s closer than it should be,” Hogan said before the polls closed, from the National Governors Association meeting in Aspen, noting he was frustrated the Democratic Governors Association poured $2 million in ads promoting Cox’s ties to Trump, a move that was widely seen to boost Cox’s chances.
“It’s unusual to see the DGA colluding with Trump to support the unelectable guy,” said Hogan, a critic of the former president who is eyeing his own White House bid in 2024.
Voters also picked nominees for comptroller and attorney general, two statewide offices that, respectively, wield considerable power on state spending and justice. Democrats have held those roles for a half-century or more. Members of the General Assembly were also on the ballot.
In the comptroller race, Del. Brooke Lierman of Baltimore was project by the Associated Press to win over Bowie Mayor Tim Adams for the Democratic nomination. Republican Barry Glassman, the Harford County executive, was unopposed.
U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown was projected to best judge Katie O’Malley for the Democratic nomination for attorney general. In the Republican contest, former Anne Arundel County councilman Michael Peroutka was projected to beat Jim Shalleck, a former Montgomery County elections chief and another Hogan endorsee.
By late Tuesday afternoon, punishing heat and the eagerness of campaign workers pummeled last-minute voters.
Some Democratic voters said they were willing to support a pragmatic or moderate Republican this fall, a reflection of the challenge ahead for their party after losing the governor’s race more often than winning it during the past two decades.
Richard Knight, 71, a Vietnam War veteran and retired penitentiary guard worried about a spike in crime in some portions of the state, was one of very few voters out when the polls opened at Point Pleasant Elementary School in Glen Burnie. A registered Democrat, he cast his vote for Franchot for governor.
But, Knight said, he isn’t wedded to voting for Franchot or any Democrat in November, instead favoring Schulz if she gets the GOP nomination.
“Hogan backed her, so I’ll go with her,” Knight said.
Another voter at the school, Jenny Hancock, wasn’t sure whom she would select for Republican gubernatorial nominee.
“I did a lot of research, but I was really on the fence,” said Hancock, 55. In the end, she voted for Cox.
“My only fear with him is that so many people won’t vote for him because they don’t like Trump, but I think he’s going to do more for the state,” she said. “Crime is my biggest concern. Hogan hasn’t done enough on that, and I think Cox will.”
Andrea Griffith said the only reason she came out to Timber Grove Elementary School in Owings Mills was to vote for Moore.
The 53-year-old retired engineering manager at Northrop Grumman said she read Moore’s book, “The Other Wes Moore,” and was moved by his story. Griffith wants Moore and others on the Democratic ticket to focus on “cleaning up” Baltimore and making it safer.
“I feel that we need a change,” Griffith said, before expressing some skepticism of the former nonprofit executive, who has never held public office.
“So, maybe he’s the person. I don’t know, but I’m willing to take a chance on him,” she said.
As voters trickled steadily into Bethesda Elementary School, Philip Seibel, a psychiatrist, shared an array of concerns about Maryland’s future. Among them: the environment, personal rights and “the insanity of the Republican Party,” he said. But Seibel, 68, said a degree of pragmatism ultimately drew him to Perez.
“I’m concerned about choosing the best candidate to further Democratic officeholders,” the Bethesda resident said. Perez, who served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of labor, “embodies a realistic progressivism, with experience and integrity. We know that who he says he is, he is.”
In Thurmont, Connie Barnard’s main motivation was to weigh in on her local school board elections after what she considers to be an unacceptable willingness by school officials to include different cultural perspectives in the curriculum, particularly LGBTQ issues.
“All this sexuality stuff is nobody’s business but the parents,” Barnard, 61, said, after voting for three school board candidates with similar views.
But the Trump supporter was unsure that outlook would win the day at the state level, and chose not to vote for any of the candidates for governor, including Cox.
“Not that I had anything against Trump, because I voted for him, but there comes a time when we have to get off this and move on,” she said. “And just pushing and pushing and pushing this, I don’t see where it’s getting us.”
Voters also selected nominees for a handful of competitive congressional primary races, which could determine whether those races also are competitive in the fall.
In heavily blue Montgomery County, voters also were deciding a competitive Democratic race for county executive that is likely to determine the winner in November.
Results in close races are likely to come down to mail-in ballots. With an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots cast this year — nearly 200,000 and climbing — learning the winners of tight contests may take days or weeks.
And with accusations of voter fraud and calls for election integrity now a part of the nation’s political discourse, some of the Democratic candidates worried the delay would sow distrust among voters.
“Things like that can make people skeptical about the process,” Moore said.
At 11 p.m., Perez told his supporters that there were about 258,000 votes counted out of an expected 600,000. “I went to law school because I was bad at math,” Perez joked. “There’s a lot of votes left to be counted.”
Nazmul Ahasan, Teo Armus, Hau Chu, Omari Daniels, Gaya Gupta, Joe Heim, Eva Herscowitz, Audrey Hill, Vanessa G. Sánchez, Isaac Stanley-Becker, Sammy Sussman and Steve Thompson contributed to this report.