The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump, election denial, QAnon and Dan Cox: In Maryland, the GOP marginalizes itself

Just as it has in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states, the Republican embrace of extremism in Maryland is having a dramatic impact on the race for governor and other elected positions

GOP volunteers Stephanie Dellamura, center, and April Montgomery try to reach voters at the Great Frederick Fair on Sept. 23. Many Republicans in Frederick County feel embattled as their county becomes increasingly purple and their state becomes an ever-deeper blue. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

FREDERICK, Md. — Perhaps it was the aroma of smoked turkey legs and warm cinnamon rolls, or the pleasant coolness that stole across the fairgrounds as the sun began to set behind the Magic Maze. Whatever the reason, Lisa Nieves was in a fine enough mood on a September evening to make a friendly overture to a man she considers her enemy.

“You want to come to the Republican side?” she called out cheerfully to Richard Kaplowitz, a 70-year-old Democratic activist, clad in blue, who strode by the Republican party’s headquarters at the Great Frederick Fair.

“Only when I’m crazy,” Kaplowitz replied without stopping.

Nieves’s face darkened.

The Republicans of Frederick County do not like it when people call them nuts. And it has not escaped their attention that people aren’t hesitant these days to do so. It is one thing to have your sanity questioned by a Democrat at the local fairgrounds. It is another when the same charge comes from Larry Hogan, the sitting Republican governor, who memorably described his party’s nominee to succeed him this November — Dan Cox, a son of Frederick County — as a “QAnon whack job.”

Hogan calls GOP gubernatorial nominee mentally unstable

Yet it is Cox and his supporters, not Hogan, who embody the current direction of Maryland’s GOP. A previously obscure state legislator who helped organize buses to D.C. on the day of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Cox earlier this year attended a conference in Pennsylvania that promoted fears of a “global Satanic blood cult,” part of a false QAnon conspiracy theory about powerful Democrats engaging in ritual child abuse. He was embraced by many Republican voters after he was endorsed by former president Donald Trump and easily defeated Hogan’s preferred candidate, Kelly Schulz — also of Frederick County — in the July primary. Cox has rejected Hogan’s attacks on his mental stability as “smear antics.”

He is joined atop the ballot by running mate Gordana Schifanelli, a lawyer who played a leading role in the campaign against a Black school superintendent who supported the Black Lives Matter movement, and attorney general candidate Michael Anthony Peroutka, who has said he wishes to dismantle public education and was captured on video strumming a guitar as he led a neo-Confederate group in singing “Dixie,” which he called “the national anthem.”

GOP voters’ enthusiasm for such figures is a remarkable turn in Maryland, a solidly blue state where Republicans who ascend to statewide office have often been centrists with proven appeal to independents and Democrats. That includes Hogan, who is being forced out of the governor’s mansion by term limits after eight years and enjoys a 73 percent approval rating.

The elevation of problematic candidates blessed by Trump has unsettled political races from Ohio and Pennsylvania to Arizona and Georgia this fall. But in Maryland, the trend is all the more striking because of the clarity of the bargain Republican voters are striking. By choosing candidates with impeccably Trumpist credentials, they are all but assuring their party’s trouncing come November, political analysts say. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wes Moore leading Cox among registered voters by 32 points.

“You could easily look around and see the lesson: If you go this route, you’re locking yourself out of power,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “But that’s where you come to the fact that voters aren’t always rational actors.”

Those dynamics are especially evident in Frederick County, a rapidly developing part of Maryland that stretches from the Potomac River to the Pennsylvanian border. Once a redoubt of rural conservatives, the county has grown to an estimated 280,000 residents, nearly 70 percent of them non-Hispanic Whites, census figures show. Yet it is undergoing a political transformation driven by the arrival of former residents of closer-in D.C. suburbs eager for more space and cheaper homes.

In the 2016 presidential election, when Republicans still held an edge in voter registrations, Trump narrowly won the county. Four years later, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans, and Biden defeated him there by nearly 10 points.

But as it has statewide, the growing strength of Democrats has led many conservatives here to retreat further to the right. That shift has changed the tenor of ground-level politics in Frederick County, the kind conducted at political club cookouts, American Legion forums — and over the roar of demolition derby at the Frederick Fairgrounds.

These events are the gateway to public life for many who go on to steer cities, counties and states. They may hold some clues to a question that, not long ago, few would have known to ask: Are blood cults and “Dixie” the future of Maryland’s Republican party? Or are they just a passing phase?

‘We’re in a war’

Jim Olson loves fairs. The 76-year-old Army colonel is now retired on a farm in the rolling pastureland southeast of Catoctin Mountain Park, but he grew up on a cattle ranch in Utah, and he has fond memories of exhibiting animals.

Along with that nostalgia, Olson carries another legacy of his rural Western childhood: a lifelong devotion to what he sees as the bedrock principles of the Republican Party. Faith and family, self-reliance and democratic ideals — these were the pillars, as Olson saw them, of a party he has supported through the eras of Nixon, both Bushes and Trump.

In this year’s gubernatorial primary he voted and volunteered for Schulz, and he is still unsure whether he will cast a ballot for Cox. Olson voted for Trump and favored some of the former president’s policies, but he said he believes Trump was a divisive figure who harmed the country with his falsehoods about winning a second term. Although Olson is disturbed at the irrationality of those he calls “Trump worshipers,” he still mingles with his party’s activists, as he did on a recent evening at the county fairgrounds, easing his rangy frame into a chair inside the Republican tent.

With him at a table were Nieves, 59, still slightly agitated from her exchange with the passing Democrat, and Stephanie Dellamura, 55, who had been showing a Washington Post reporter a handout — with definitions of various types of government including socialism, Nazism and democracy — that she uses to explain, to those who need convincing, that modern-day Republicans are not fascists.

Both women support Cox and Trump, and they doubt the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. But they say their devotion to the GOP has nothing to do with QAnon, a set of beliefs Dellamura calls “ridiculous.”

They are more interested in lower taxes, less crime and revamping a public education system they believe is indoctrinating children on sexual and gender identity issues best left to parents — a topic also driving Republican campaigns for the county school board.

Their small talk with Olson started off well enough, as Nieves complimented his skin (“You must use a lot of cream at night,” she said) and Dellamura opined that abortion “truly is taking a life.” (“Very well said,” Olson replied.) The conversation grew more strained when Olson mentioned the possible usefulness of windmills (“Honey, they don’t work,” Nieves said with a pitying stare) and defended a vision of the GOP in which there was space for moderates.

“I’m more of a big-tent Republican than you guys are,” he said.

“I don’t want people who are undermining the Republican Party,” Dellamura said.

Nieves brought up the Internal Revenue Service’s plan to hire more agents, which has stoked right-wing conspiracy theories about the persecution of law-abiding Americans.

“Come on,” she said to Olson. “We’re in a war. You know that.”

Olson, who handled medical logistics for the Gulf War under former president George H.W. Bush, studied his cup of raspberry ice cream.

“Well, if we’re in a war, we’re going to lose,” he said. “Because our party is divided.”

The divisions often seemed to start with Trump but had cascaded to the lowest tiers of politics. There was, for example, the fate of Michael Blue, a Frederick County Council member elected in 2018 to represent the county’s northernmost — and most conservative-leaning — council district.

A Republican who voted twice for Trump, Blue nevertheless prized his ability to work with Democrats on what he deemed nonpartisan local issues, such as the county’s budget and public-health initiatives. Those efforts made him a target of his party’s hard-right activists, and in July he was defeated in the primary by Mason Carter, an 18-year-old who had graduated from high school less than two months earlier.

Blue, the longtime owner-operator of an auto service shop in Walkersville, said he is supporting Julianna Lufkin, the Democrat running against Carter for his seat. His reasoning is straightforward.

“She’s 31 years old,” he said. “She’s not 18.”

Carter, in an interview with The Post, said Trump had inspired his interest in politics at a young(er) age and that he modeled his approach on that of the former president’s. He said he would not commit to accepting the results of the November council election if he is not declared the winner.

“How can you rightfully accept something that hasn’t happened yet?” Carter asked.

‘Tired of the lie’

Nearly a third of Americans believe the falsehood that Trump was robbed of a second term because of voter fraud, according to a Monmouth University poll in September. Ron Young, an outgoing Democratic state senator who was born in the city of Frederick and served as its mayor from 1974 to 1990, said he has been astonished to encounter many of them in this part of Maryland.

“The Republicans I knew when I started out in politics, we had philosophical or policy differences. But we didn’t have these far-right crazies that deny the election, that are buying into QAnon and stuff like that,” Young said. “There are people that I have known all my life who I would have never guessed would buy into that kind of thing. But they have.”

Some conservatives say they, like the candidates they have nominated, are unfairly branded as extremists in a state that has always been hostile toward Trump supporters.

“We feel like we’re the minority. We’re unfairly treated,” said Billy Shreve, a member of the Frederick County Republican Central Committee. “That’s what everyone says anytime we have a chance at winning an election — that we’re whack jobs.”

Shreve, who has admired Trump since reading “The Art of the Deal” in the 1980s, said the former president remains a beloved figure among most Republicans he knows.

“Everyone likes him for different reasons,” Shreve said. “TV personality, successful business person, his hot wife: whatever you’re latching onto, there’s plenty of reasons to follow him.”

Some are prepared to follow quite far. Among those who popped into the fair’s Republican tent to say hello was Nicholas Rodean, a 28-year-old from Frederick who was photographed next to the bare-chested “QAnon Shaman” inside the Capitol on Jan. 6 and is now awaiting sentencing for his role in the attack. Rodean declined to speak to a Post reporter and left soon afterward.

Dellamura also traveled to Washington on Jan. 6 to support Trump, though she said she did not join the mob storming the Capitol. As night fell on the Frederick fairgrounds more than 20 months later, she tried to persuade Olson that he was wrong to trust the repeated investigations that had found no evidence the election was stolen.

“They were suppressing information,” she said.

Olson shook his head.

“I’m tired of the lie,” he said.

Dellamura acknowledged that she didn’t like Trump’s tone or his tweets.

“He’s not perfect,” she said. “But look at biblical men. God didn’t choose people who were perfect.”

Olson left unconvinced.

By the time he rose and left, the evening crowds had arrived. The midway was thronged with people, speaking English and Spanish, carrying children or fresh-cut fries. Some walked toward the display of prize bantams, some toward the Full Tilt and Starship 3000. Many passed the Frederick County Republicans’ tent, but few stopped to look inside.

Scott Clement and Erin Cox contributed to this report.