Maryland primary voters face a myriad of choices on the ballot on July 19. One of the most closely watched races involves the party nominations to succeed term-limited incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. For Democratic groups, it's another chance this cycle to experiment with influencing the contests by focusing on pro-Donald Trump candidates.
Some observers argue it's strategic, under the assumption that a choice favored by the GOP's base will then be rejected by the broader electorate.
This time, after mixed success influencing other states' races and with the midterms looming over Democrats' fragile majority in Congress, the focus of the Democratic spending is Maryland state Del. Dan Cox.
Cox, who was endorsed by Trump, called then-Vice President Mike Pence a "traitor" in a since-removed tweet after Pence's certification of the 2020 election results. In another since-deleted tweet, Cox announced that he was arranging two buses to drive constituents to Trump's Jan. 6, 2021, appearance near the White House shortly before a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.
He later said in a Facebook video that his group was at the Washington Monument, but due to massive crowds, did not approach the Capitol. He denounced "all mob violence, including those who broke into the U.S. Capitol" and said in the video, "Our group left early for the bus ride home and, of course, did not participate in any violence."
The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) aired an ad in late June following a familiar playbook: criticizing Cox's conservative credentials in a way that also spotlights him amid a primary with more moderate contenders.
The latest ad featured his "100% pro-life" stance and commitment to "protect the Second Amendment at all costs." The ad's narrator concluded that Cox was "too close to Trump."
The DGA, for its part, doesn't describe its efforts as pro-Cox.
"For months, multiple polls have shown Dan Cox is firmly in the driver's seat of Maryland's Republican primary, with the total backing of Donald Trump and the state's only Republican member of congress Andy Harris," DGA Deputy Communications Director Sam Newton said in a statement to ABC News. "Given Cox's frontrunner status and radical MAGA stances, we are starting the general election early and wasting no time to hold him accountable."
Josh Schwerin, a party strategist unconnected with the race, told ABC News that "we can't know for sure what their strategy really is. But there are two advantages [to what they're doing]."
"One, they can start talking about issues to their voters and supporters earlier during the campaigns. These issues they're talking about are issues that can be discussed in the primaries, because they will be talked about during the general election," Schwerin said. "Two, these Republican candidates could be easier to beat in the general election, although this poses the risk of the extreme candidate actually winning over the moderate."
Democrats' track record of trying to influence state Republican primaries has varied so far this year: Greg Lopez, the face of DGA ads in Colorado, lost the Republican Senate primary to moderate Joe O'Dea, setting up a potentially key race against Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet.
Meanwhile, the DGA funded ads focusing on right-wing Illinois state Sen. Darren Bailey, who then scored the Republican nomination over former Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin to face incumbent Gov. J.B. Pritzker in what was the most expensive race in state history.
Maryland's gubernatorial race presents a further test run of whether Democratic groups can exploit existing intraparty skirmishes on the right. The Republican primary is between Cox and Kelly Schulz, a former state lawmaker and commerce secretary in Hogan's cabinet, who won his endorsement shortly after Trump backed Cox.
Hogan, a conservative leader of a blue state, is part of his party's anti-Trump minority and rejected the former president's baseless claims of election fraud. Trump responded by calling Hogan a "RINO," or "Republican in name only."
Hogan blasted the DGA at a press conference last Thursday, accusing Democrats for "spending over $1 million to prop up a QAnon conspiracy theorist. [They] desperately want [Cox] to be the Republican nominee."
"It’s telling that Kelly Schulz is already looking for excuses for her failure to gain any momentum, while refusing to answer questions and even show up to debates," Newton, the DGA spokesman, said.
Cox reportedly attended the conference last week, occasionally shouting back at the governor and at Schulz, then later posted a series of videos on social media that called the event "laughable" and "hilarious."
Cox's team told ABC News he doesn't believe in QAnon, though he did tweet -- in October 2020 -- a hashtag widely associated with the conspiracy. A spokesman for Cox said in response Hogan's criticism, "I pray for him because of his blatant lies."
Schulz, meanwhile, pushed back at the other party's interference.
"Dan Cox is the living definition of fringe and is clearly unfit for office," a Schulz spokesman, Mike Demkiw, told ABC News. "That's why the DGA is spending money to bolster his campaign – they would rather spend $1 million now than face Kelly Schulz in November and waste $5 million losing to her."
The DGA believes it could tip the scales, despite its track record elsewhere. The organization has touted a poll by Goucher College which found the GOP primary was a statistical tie between Cox and Schulz, but the latter was "in the best position to be competitive against the Democratic nominee."
The DGA has also accused Schulz of "trying to hide her extreme anti-choice beliefs."
The 2011 "Maryland Personhood Amendment," which Schulz sponsored during her tenure in the House of Delegates, would have allowed Maryland voters to decide on amending the state constitution to provide constitutional rights to people "from the beginning of their biological development." Had the bill passed into law, it would have likely banned abortion cases in almost all cases, according to reproductive rights groups.
However, Schulz has recently come out in support of abortion access in Maryland: "I am personally pro-life … Despite fear-mongering from others, as governor, I'll do nothing to change current Maryland law."
While Maryland is reliably Democratic in presidential elections and has a Democratic legislature, Democrats have lost three of the five previous gubernatorial elections and Hogan remains popular.
"The DGA loves to talk about protecting and defending democracy, but in reality, they care far more about protecting political power and this proves it," Demkiw told ABC News said of their spending.
Schwerin, the Democratic strategist, offered another take: The DGA's "strategy forces other candidates to talk about their positions -- not just the extreme candidate who the DGA aired. In the case of Dan Cox, he is anti-abortion and pro-Second Amendment and has Trump's endorsement. In a place like Maryland, you can't run for Republicans while supporting abortions. And you can't run for the Democrats while opposing abortion. The voters want to see these positions."
"Unlike Cox, Schulz hasn't said anything about voting for Trump. ... The DGA ads contribute to the campaigns," Schwerin continued, "because now, Schulz is forced to pick a side and tell voters her positions."