The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Md. GOP nominee Cox deletes account on Gab, site known for hate speech

Gubernatorial candidate has also deleted references on his website to transgender athletes, a forensic audit of the 2020 election, and ‘a natural right’ to gun ownership since the primary

Maryland GOP gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox addresses supporters as running mate Gordana Schifanelli looks on at the Aug. 15 opening of their campaign headquarters in Annapolis. (Erin Cox/The Washington Post)

Maryland Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox has deleted his account on Gab, a social media platform known as an online hub for hate speech and white nationalists, and his campaign website no longer notes his fight against certifying the 2020 presidential election results.

Cox deleted more than 1,000 posts in striking his profile from the site, which welcomes users banned from other platforms. A web archive page of his activity did not preserve any of the posts themselves, and the Cox campaign would not discuss them.

The scrubbing of his Gab account and website appears to be an attempt by the campaign — which recently brought in out-of-state staff — to reset after its primary contest against a moderate Republican in a race seen by many as a proxy war between Gov. Larry Hogan, who endorsed Kelly Schulz, and former president Donald Trump, who backed Cox.

The Cox campaign deleted and revamped other elements of its website after winning the July primary, including references to “a natural right” to gun ownership, and promises to ban transgender athletes in women’s sports and conduct an audit of the 2020 presidential election, which he has called “stolen.”

Cox’s pivot away from some of the policies he championed are emblematic of the broader challenges some Republican primary candidates have faced in swing states across the country as they turn to the general election and vie for support from independents and other voters.

In Wisconsin, Trump-endorsed Tim Michels, the GOP gubernatorial nominee, who prominently featured Trump during the primary, this month launched his first post-primary advertisement without mentioning the former president. And in Kansas, Republican candidates up and down the ticket are readjusting their campaign messages away from abortion after voters rejected a ballot initiative to restrict abortions.

The political math for Maryland Republicans is starker: registered GOP voters make up less than a quarter of the electorate, so appealing to independents and conservative Democrats is critical.

“If he had any hope of being competitive, to any outside observer, he had to try to find some way to moderate his appeal,” Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s University, said of Cox. Eberly said it seems obvious the campaign has “looked for ways to hide some of the more controversial parts of his past.”

“The closest we’ve ever had to a Dan Cox run statewide in Maryland was Donald Trump, and you saw how poorly he did,” Eberly said. Trump lost Maryland to Biden by more than 1 million votes in 2020.

The Cox campaign did not grant an interview request nor answer written questions about the changes.

Gab, which advertises itself as “the free speech social network” and relishes in allowing users to post whatever they want, made headlines about four years ago when the man accused of opening fire on the Tree of Life synagogue was linked to antisemitic remarks on the platform. Robert Bowers, who has been indicted on more than 60 counts related to the killing of 11 people, posted on Gab for years. Gab said it removed him from the site after the shooting and notified authorities.

Cox’s distancing from Gab comes after his friend, Doug Mastriano, state senator and Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor, came under intense criticism over his use of the platform, with fellow Republicans in the state calling on him to condemn the site. Last month, Mastriano set his account to private and then removed it, according to the Forward, aJewish media outlet.

In the general election, in an uphill race to keep the governor’s mansion in Republican hands, Cox, an attorney and first-term state delegate, needs registered Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin in Maryland, to cross party lines. He also has to entice some of the large number of independents to vote for him over Democratic nominee Wes Moore, a best-selling author and former nonprofit chief.

To be competitive in the blue state, where Hogan won two terms, statewide Republican candidates need about a quarter of Democratic voters on their side. A June poll by Goucher College found that 9 percent of the Democratic voters surveyed said they would consider voting for Cox. Twenty-three percent of Democrats said they would consider voting for Schulz, who lost the primary to Cox by nearly nine percentage points.

As Cox’s strategy evolves, he has been quieter about his role in challenging the 2020 presidential election results and, to some degree, Trump, whose support buoyed his primary run.

His updated campaign website has removed a prominent endorsement and photo of Trump from its main page.

Some time after the primary, the Cox campaign removed this sentence from the “Meet Dan Cox” section of his website: “As one of President Trump’s volunteer lawyers in Philadelphia during the 2020 election, and in the Maryland State House, he has led the fight for election integrity.”

The landing page before the primary vowed to conduct a forensic audit of the 2020 election. No mention of an audit is currently on the page.

Some of the changes are subtle. His main biography lost a sentence that described Cox as “a stalwart fighter for the Second Amendment.” However, a separate section of the website says more broadly “Delegate Cox is a staunch defender of the rule of law and of our Bill of Rights, and the practical application of those rights under the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution” and links to a page of video clips of Cox “Defending the Right to Bear Arms.”

In addition to the deletions, since his primary win Cox has denied organizing buses to the “Stop the Steal” rally, although his tweet from January 2021 said he was “co-hosting” buses from Frederick for the Jan. 6 rally at the Capitol.

Meanwhile, on the website, he has expanded his “promise” to the Black community, defending “religious exemptions from mandates,” empowering “Black churches to compete for state resources for their communities” and advancing “homeownership and financial literacy in the Black community.”

While making a partial pivot on some issues, Cox has been doubling down on others, including opposing immunizations and other pandemic control measures, calling for “law and order” in Baltimore and labeling public schools “indoctrination centers” where students are “brainwashed” about sexual and gender identity “behind parents’ backs.”

Since the primary, Cox has continued to campaign in the red areas of the state. But he also is attempting to make inroads in Democratic strongholds. In Facebook posts, there is a video of him playing basketball with Black teenagers on a Baltimore City playground and photos of him addressing a group of Latino ministers at a meet-and-greet in Montgomery County.

And while he has mentioned Trump less, he did post a $6,000 donation from Citizen United President and Trump ally David Bossie to his Facebook page. He also came to the former president’s defense earlier this month by criticizing federal officials for the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and promising to use the Maryland State Police against the Biden administration if he became governor, saying he would ward off federal overreaches.

This week, just days after Hogan publicly questioned his mental stability, Cox sent a fundraising email to supporters alleging Moore is promoting a “social government control practice” with a plan to reinstate a Governor’s Office for Children to address disparities for children, which would include studying and tracking student performance over time.

Cox’s running mate, Gordana Schifanelli, tweeted that Hogan should be removed from the Republican Party for saying that he didn’t think Cox was mentally stable.

Cox’s nomination has exposed a rift in the state Republican Party, with Hogan vowing not to campaign for Cox. Other top Republicans, worried about how it could affect down-ballot races, quietly distancing themselves from the GOP nominee.

The GOP nominee also posts different content on his Twitter feed and his Truth Social account. Over the weekend, he criticized Moore on Truth Social over comments about structural racism.

“Maryland Does Not Need a Woke Governor,” the post began.