The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The risky game the Democrats are playing

Del. Dan Cox, a Maryland state legislator who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor of Maryland, talks to reporters in Annapolis on June 30. (Brian Witte/AP)

The Democratic Governors Association has spent $2 million on commercials and mailers to boost a Republican named Daniel L. Cox, a 2020 election denier, over Kelly M. Schulz, a more pragmatic Republican candidate for governor in Maryland, on the theory that Cox will be easier to defeat in a general election.

This move is part of a broader Democratic strategy to limit their losses in the midterms by trying to elevate fringe figures over the GOP’s governing wing. Even though this tactic may have worked in a few places, it could lead to terrifying outcomes in a national environment that strongly favors Republicans.

In Maryland, the DGA’s commercials aimed at Republicans have emphasized Donald Trump’s endorsement of Cox and noted that he is “100 percent pro-life” and would “protect the Second Amendment at all costs.”

Democrats are digging deep to help Cox because they believe the more moderate Schulz would make the general election competitive. She’s a big-tent Republican who is focusing her campaign on law and order, school choice and opposing higher taxes. She would also be Maryland’s first female governor. The state is one of 19 to have never elected a woman to its top job. All 10 of the Democratic candidates on the ballot are male.

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Cox has been able to afford only $21,000 for his own spots, meaning that the DGA is investing nearly 100 times as much on his behalf.

Cox is unfit to lead Maryland. He has called former vice president Mike Pence “a traitor” for not trying to overturn the 2020 election. He didn’t just attend Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021; he chartered three buses to ferry Trump supporters into the capital on that day which will forever live in infamy. Cox agitated for Trump to use the federal government to seize voting machines during that period, as well, and he’s already laying the groundwork to cry fraud if he loses this year.

Trump hosted a tele-rally for Cox last Wednesday, in which he described him as “100 percent MAGA” and attacked Schulz for being endorsed by incumbent governor Larry Hogan. Cox tried to impeach Hogan, and unsuccessfully sued the governor, over coronavirus restrictions. Meanwhile, Schulz served ably in the Hogan administration as labor secretary and commerce secretary, where she helped keep businesses afloat during the pandemic.

But boosting the chances of someone who is unfit for office assumes more knowledge of the electorate than either party possesses. Hogan is right to accuse the DGA of playing “Russian roulette.” Democrats cede the moral high ground when they bray about democracy being at risk and then spend heavily to promote the very people who are putting it in danger. If the stakes weren’t so high, I would say that operatives who play these games deserve to lose. But I would never wish a Gov. Cox on the good people of Maryland.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro spent nearly $1 million giving vital air support this spring to Doug Mastriano, a state senator who advocated for seating an alternate slate of Trump electors, so he could win the GOP gubernatorial primary over a better-funded former U.S. attorney who stood up to Trump. Similarly, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) spent heavily to make sure a moderate African American mayor lost the GOP primary to a fringe state legislator.

The Democratic ploy in Maryland is certainly not as risky as it was in Pennsylvania, a true swing state. Biden carried the Old Line State by more than 30 points in 2020, and more than twice as many Marylanders are registered as Democrats than Republicans. But only one Democrat has been elected Maryland’s governor in this century, and the GOP has won three of the past five gubernatorial contests.

In recent years, Democrats have consistently underestimated the Trump movement’s ability to drive new voters to the polls. Remember: Hillary Clinton was eager to face Trump in the 2016 presidential race. She figured he would be way easier to beat than someone like Jeb Bush, the son of the president her husband defeated in 1992. But Trump galvanized people who never would have turned out for such an establishment choice.Many happened to live in electorally significant places such as central Pennsylvania, the exurbs around Detroit and rural Wisconsin.

Democrats barely have a grip on their own party’s many factions. Trying to fiddle with the circuitry of a party they understand even less is a dangerous move.