The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dan Cox was a backbench Md. lawmaker. Then the pandemic hit.

Before Trump’s endorsement and the pandemic catapulted Dan Cox to the GOP nomination for governor, he was a polite freshman lawmaker in Annapolis’s super-minority, pushing parental rights and abortion restrictions far outside Maryland’s political mainstream

Del. Dan Cox (R) in Annapolis on June 30. (Brian Witte/AP)

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Dan Cox voted to keep an old law that makes spousal rape legal. The law he voted to keep forbids certain prosecutions of spousal rape. This version has been corrected.

Long before Donald Trump elevated his primary bid for governor, Del. Dan Cox was a polite backbencher in the Republican super-minority, building his reputation in Annapolis as a thoughtful yet inflexible lawyer whose legislation rarely passed.

Cox (R-Frederick) held the door for Democratic colleagues, earnestly suggested an acerbic GOP friend pick up “How to Win Friends and Influence People” — and championed bills often far outside Maryland’s political mainstream.

“He was on the typical freshman path, finding his way,” said House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany), who supported Cox’s primary opponent. Then, “Dan’s sense of self and sense of himself as legislator really changed.”

The pandemic fueled Cox’s political trajectory. He said he never considered running for governor in heavily Democratic Maryland before his fight against shutdowns, mask restrictions and vaccine mandates focused his ambition and rallied supporters.

“I had no plans, never even crossed my imagination,” said Cox, 48. His record of passing two bills, tacking on a few amendments to others and casting votes on the fringe of his own party would not normally portend a shot at the state’s top job. Neither would calling the 2020 election of President Biden “stolen” in a deeply Democratic state, nor attending a conference in Gettysburg, Pa., this spring that promoted QAnon theories.

But now he’s at the top of the GOP ticket, waging an uphill campaign against a Democratic opponent who has outraised him 10 to 1. Cox’s record as a one-term state lawmaker illustrates what he did — and tried to do — when he had a position of power.

A constitutional lawyer by training, Cox summarizes his legislative philosophy as “power to the people” by curtailing government’s influence — though he supports the government’s protection of what he calls natural rights, including those of fetuses and parents.

Over four years, he introduced 14 bills that would restrict or roll back access to abortion and offered multiple additional budget amendments to strip state funding for low-income women seeking the procedure. He sought to make concealed-carry permits available to all handgun owners who wanted one for self-defense. He pushed for tax cuts big and small. And he voted with just two other Annapolis lawmakers to keep an old law that forbids certain prosecutions of spousal rape.

Alongside bills about black bear hunting, sex offenders’ homes, alternative treatments for soldiers with PTSD and remembering Pearl Harbor, Cox heavily emphasized parental rights both in custody battles and in the classroom or school board meetings. Well before he launched a long-shot run that drew Trump’s endorsement, he proposed limits to executive power for public health emergencies.

Asked if he would push similar antiabortion proposals as governor, Cox said, “I do have a consistent and transparent record of service to the people of Maryland, whereas my opponent, Wes Moore, has no record.” (Moore, the Democratic nominee, is an author and former nonprofit executive who has not held public office.)

Cox pushed to limit distribution of drugs for medical abortions, add informed-consent requirements, let medical providers refuse to perform abortions and ban the procedure altogether after a heartbeat is detected.

Three times, he pushed bills to outlaw abortions of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome, allowing for exceptions for cases of rape or incest. He challenged colleagues in a hearing to “look in the mirror. … Is the person looking back at you perfect? … What if your flaws were identifiable through a DNA test? … Would you be here given your imperfections?”

“He is a devout Christian man who tries to make decisions based off of what he thinks God is calling him to do,” said Del. Lauren C. Arikan (R-Harford), who serves alongside Cox on the Judiciary Committee. “He’s very thoughtful and kind.”

Arikan’s office neighbors Cox’s, and she echoed colleagues who said privately that even in disagreement he was unfailingly polite. She said it’s in contrast to her approach. “I rub people the wrong way all day, every day,” she said, and laughed recalling how Cox gently recommended she read Dale Carnegie’s 1936 self-help classic on winning friends.

Like many freshmen, Cox’s legislative victories have been rare. When he successfully amended a bill exempting orchards and farmers markets from a ban on plastic bags in 2020, his colleagues broke out into applause. Once during a marathon committee hearing, in 2019, he tacitly acknowledged the futility of his bill that would require at least two school employees to carry guns, drawing laughs by saying, “I’m hesitant to get into my full testimony and just ask you to pass it and we’ll be done.”

The two bills Cox did get passed came in his first year, in 2019. One set up a task force to review all criminal and civil violations in Maryland code looking for collateral consequences. The other requires the national hotline for human trafficking to be posted prominently near marriage license clerks in courthouses.

He said recently that he pitched the latter bill after a constituent came to his office, weeping about being a trapped in a seven-year marriage to her trafficker. But when it came to other marquee human trafficking laws that advocates pushed, Cox was in a small minority who voted against them.

He was one of 21 lawmakers to vote against raising the minimum marriage age from 15 to 17. In an interview, he said a pregnant 16-year-old should be allowed to marry the father.

Cox was one of five members of the House of Delegates to vote against a “safe harbor” bill that forbids prosecuting child sex-trafficking victims for prostitution. He said he was convinced that the prosecutions protected children and that police needed the “tool in the toolbox” as leverage to persuade victims to help “catch the pimps” because nothing else would overcome the children’s fear of the traffickers.

“Every single police officer that testified, to my recollection, in front of our committee indicated that they do not ever mistreat a minor in the prosecution of prostitution,” he said.

Maryland may finally protect child sex-trafficking victims from prosecution

He pressed for bills regardless of whether he could get them enacted by Democrats, because he viewed his role partly as a spokesperson for the people who elected him.

“I’m not going to back down from what my constituents need,” Cox said, referring to his rural district near the Pennsylvania border that voted for Trump by 10 percentage points in 2020. “And so we’re going to have hearings and public hearings. That’s the beauty of the legislative process, to make sure that my constituents’ voices are heard.”

Colleagues on both sides of the aisle described him as principled and didactic. But his policy choices drew more attention than his colleagues’, particularly after the pandemic.

By the time Trump took note in the fall of 2021, Cox had used pandemic outrage to elevate his platform online, tapping into a national vein of conservative grievance about governmental overreach.

It started weeks into the pandemic, in May 2020, when he unsuccessfully sued Gov. Larry Hogan, a fellow Republican, in federal court over the scope and duration of pandemic-related shutdowns. By then, Maryland was reporting about 950 cases per day, 1,250 people had died, and vaccines were still more than six months from emergency approval.

This year, with Trump and Cox sharing Hogan as a political foe, Cox made what historians have called the first serious effort to impeach a Maryland governor. (Republicans joined Democrats in unanimously voting it down in committee.)

Cox’s low profile shifted. His social media following swelled in 2020 and beyond as he joined other organizations to become a leading voice against stay-at-home orders that shuttered business and churches. His advocacy and its contrast to Hogan, he said, prompted people to ask him to consider running for governor.

“It began in a simple way of simply advocating for common-sense understandings that if we’re going to have Walmart and big box stores open and liquor stores, that we certainly can have small businesses open and churches open with similar standards,” Cox said. “I think it just demonstrates the beauty of the American system that sometimes we’re required by the people to step up and do more than what we had anticipated. And hopefully it’s all for the better of everyone.”

In his law practice, Cox took on work challenging pandemic restrictions, filing lawsuits on behalf of businesses, private citizens and organizations against public officials in Charles, Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Harford counties. All were ultimately dismissed.

In 2021 and more so in 2022 after he’d declared he was running for governor, Cox began to speak out more and file more legislation that sent a signal to the conservative base, colleagues say. Cox sought to forbid coronavirus vaccine mandates and introduced legislation to let people collect unemployment benefits if they were fired for refusing to get vaccinated. (“No jabs for jobs” is a campaign promise to voters.)

“He was pleasant and seemed, you know, fairly normal as far as ordinary social interactions go,” said David Moon, a liberal Democrat from Montgomery County. “But over the course of the four-year term, I would say he definitely started doing some of these hot-button issues. I don’t recall him doing ‘don’t say gay’ bills when he first got here, but certainly that’s what he was doing towards the end.”

Moon said that based on his experience with Cox in the General Assembly, he has been telling Democrats not to take him for granted in the election. “He’s obviously a Trump-molded conservative firebrand at this point, but my read on it is he seems like a bit of a calculating guy,” Moon said.

“It’s very easy to put him into a caricature … as not a formidable, strategic mind,” Moon said. “I’m not sure I feel the same way about Dan Cox.”

The issue of parental rights was a defining one for Cox long before it galvanized the right and helped lift Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) into office in 2021. Earlier that year, Cox likened a bill on mental health access for tweens to the Nazis’ trampling of Jewish rights during the Holocaust. He pushed to forbid discussion of gender identity in public schools before the fourth grade and to notify parents so they can opt out of history or sexual-education curriculum of which they disapprove.

Annapolis colleagues from both parties say that although Cox is often branded as Trump-aligned, they have far different styles.

“He doesn’t have a tremendous amount of bombast in his personality,” said Buckel, the leader of the House GOP caucus. “He says and does things that aren’t always popular, but he does it from a place of principle and always respectfully. … He certainly has his moments of rhetorical flourish.”

Arikan said Democrats and Cox’s foes aren’t being honest about him. “There’s a sweetness to him that they can deny now, but they all know it in their hearts,” Arikan said.

“I’ve never really heard him be cruel or purposefully hurtful toward someone,” she said. “It’s never passive-aggressive, which is the bread and butter of politics in Maryland. He doesn’t do any of that backstabbing crap.”

At a rally in Pennsylvania this month, Trump celebrated Cox’s primary win as a defeat for Hogan. Cox stood and gave a thumbs-up to the crowd in Wilkes-Barre. “He’s got a tough race,” Trump said.

“This is my fault,” the former president continued. “Larry Hogan’s not going to be supporting you only because I’m supporting you. I don’t know what that means, but Maryland has a great man running and I hope you’re going to do well. And we’ll be out there helping you, okay?”