It is the latest version of a now increasingly common playbook for Democrats. In a handful of blue states — and especially in governor races — Democratic groups and campaigns have run ads promoting the more extreme Republican candidate in a primary in the hopes of winning the nomination and being easier to beat in the November general election.
The results have been mixed so far: The DGA and Democratic administration JB Pritzker have successfully singled out their opponent in Illinois, despite spending tens of millions of dollars on it. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for that state’s open gubernatorial race, gave state Sen. Doug Mastriano a boost in the closing days of the Republican primaries there — but Mastriano was the GOP frontrunner even before that. And in Colorado, efforts to derail Republican candidates running for governor and senate both fell flat.
But Maryland may have the most thorny primary of them all — an all-out proxy war between Trump and Hogan, a moderate Republican in the blue state who has called on the GOP to chart a new course away from the former president. Cox’s early endorsement by Trump was quickly followed by Hogan moving all in for Schulz, a former state legislator who served in Hogan’s cabinet until earlier this year. Hogan supported Schulz, and much of his political network works in one way or another to boost her campaign.
“It’s not unexpected,” Schulz said of the DGA purchase in an interview, citing Democratic meddling in races elsewhere. “The DGA would much rather spend $1 million now than $5 million on the general election” if she were the nominee.
The race between Schulz and Cox, which also includes two other lesser-known Republicans, remains exciting. A recent poll by The Baltimore Banner/WYPR/Goucher College had the two within the margin of error: Cox at 25 percent, Schulz at 22 percent. A 44 percent majority of voters said they were undecided or did not know who they would support in the primary.
And the DGA ad can have a big impact. The commission set aside at least $1.2 million in airtime, according to data from the ad tracking company AdImpact — more than what Cox and Schulz have spent on advertising together.
Trump has not gathered for Cox in the state, but he did call for an event the candidate hosted late last month. “Dan is totally MAGA, and I say that very strongly,” Trump told the crowd in a video posted by Cox’s campaign, “unlike his opponent named Kelly Schulz, who along with Larry Hogan is bad news.”
Even though Cox is tied in the recent primary poll, the DGA insists it’s just getting off to a flying start to attack Cox before November. “Given Cox’s frontrunner status and radical MAGA stances, we are starting the general election early and wasting no time holding him accountable,” DGA spokesman Sam Newton said in a statement.
The Democratic committee has thwarted Schulz during the primaries, with the campaign and committee trading barbs through the media. (A recent press release subject line from the DGA: “Debate evasion Kelly Schulz is angry, the DGA sent 8 press releases mentioning her – here’s #9.”) However, the ad purchase represents a significant escalation.
“We see this not just as an attack on Kelly, but as an attack on all Republicans in Maryland,” said Doug Mayer, a longtime aide to Hogan who advises the Schulz campaign. “Because the gist of what they’re saying is that Republicans in Maryland are idiots. That they’re rubes, and a bunch of smart pants in DC could fool them. … In the end, they are not fooling people.”
Mayer said he expected the Schulz campaign to talk a lot about the DGA’s ad campaign in the final weeks of the race.
As Schulz looks to continue Hogan’s two-term legacy, whoever wins the GOP nomination will likely be an underdog this fall. Democrats consider this governor’s race to be one of their best picks in the nation, with the popular Hogan of the vote in a state winning President Joe Biden by more than 30 points.
But the Democratic primary remains undecided. A recent Banner/WYPR/Goucher poll of that crowded race found three candidates in their mid-teens: State Comptroller Peter Franchot, author Wes Moore and former US Secretary of Labor Tom Perez.
Hogan chided Democrats for elevating Cox during a news conference on Thursday, calling their meddling grossly irresponsible.
“The Democrats are so afraid of losing again that they are now enabling, encouraging and embracing a QAnon conspiracy theorist,” Hogan said, referring to Cox. “The people who shout all day that democracy is at stake are willing to play Russian roulette with the Maryland state house just to win elections.”
Cox’s campaign responded to an interview request with a lengthy statement accusing Schulz of colluding with Democrats, saying that the data Schulz’s campaign disseminated about the DGA’s ad buying was not public and proved they were working together. (In fact, TV ad data is available from private ad tracking companies and the FCC website.)
Cox also crashed Thursday’s press conference of Schulz and Hogan, according to Maryland Matters, “occasionally yelling at the governor and his protégé.”
And on Friday, Trump issued a statement mimicking Cox’s statement about the purchase of the DGA, calling it “all fake games.” He also called both Hogan and Schulz RINOs, saying that Hogan “came to the rescue of his fellow ‘Never Trumper.'”
But Schulz clearly sees Hogan, who remains very popular with Maryland voters, as a strong asset to her campaign. “Marylanders — whether you’re a Republican, an Independent, or a Democrat — they’re happy with the way the state is going and they know that another Republican can keep those checks and balances in the state…that’s what Marylanders are looking for.” looking,” she said.
State House Minority Leader Jason Buckel, a supporter of Schulz, said in an interview that the DGA’s efforts were an attempt to elevate a weaker candidate.
Buckel said that while he did not personally criticize Cox, his campaign would not have the “financial resources” to compete in the general election.
“The truth is the Democrats know” [Schulz] would be hard to beat,” Buckel said.