Skip to content

Maryland’s GOP is divided after Dan Cox’s defeat for governor


Since their historic drubbing in last month’s election, Maryland Republican leaders have talked about rebuilding and reunifying a party whose infighting, disorganization and taste for extremist candidates have seemingly doomed its near-term appeal to many of the state’s voters.

But as state GOP officials prepare to gather at their convention this weekend — taking a fresh look at the party’s infrastructure and choosing a new set of officers to lead them out of the political wilderness — the odds of reconciliation and cooperation are not looking good.

Instead, the state convention is serving as a showcase for acrimony that runs deeper than even many Republicans realized. It has brought to the fore a bitter rift between failed gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox and his running mate, Gordana Schifanelli, who is seeking to become the state party’s chairwoman over Cox’s opposition.

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

It has turned Republican leaders against one another over a subject that has been at the core of GOP messaging in recent years: election integrity. Schifanelli and others seeking party officer positions say current Republican leaders have manipulated the rules to prevent them from fairly competing for votes, a charge the outgoing GOP chairman denies.

Such internal machinations are typically ignored by most voters, said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College. But the party apparatus that emerges this weekend will be responsible for trying to reverse the GOP’s path to irrelevance in Maryland.

To do that, Kromer said, the state party’s foremost task will be to recruit and develop candidates capable of competing in a state where Democrats have a greater than 2-to-1 registration advantage. Some of the more promising figures in that mold, including county executive candidates in Anne Arundel and Frederick counties, suffered narrow defeats last month that some blame on the deeply unpopular figures at the top of the Republican ticket.

“They have a problem with this convention, obviously,” Kromer said. “But the biggest problem they’re facing is just a decimated bench of political talent.”

The turmoil in Maryland’s GOP comes after eight years in which Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is stepping down because of term limits, enjoyed broad popularity. Yet many in the party’s base turned against Hogan during his final years in office, repulsed by the governor’s criticism of former president Donald Trump and, in some cases, his pandemic mitigation policies.

Hogan’s preferred successor, Kelly Schulz, lost the Republican gubernatorial primary to Cox, a backbench freshman lawmaker who had helped organize buses to D.C. on the day of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and attended a conference in Pennsylvania that promoted the discredited QAnon extremist ideology. Hogan called Cox a “whack job.”

Also at the top of the Republican ticket were Schifanelli — a lawyer from Queen Anne’s County who helped lead the campaign against a Black schools superintendent who supported the Black Lives Matter movement — and attorney general nominee Michael Anthony Peroutka, who once led a neo-Confederate group in singing “Dixie,” which he called “the national anthem.”

All three were defeated by their Democratic opponents in a landslide. Cox and Schifanelli lost by more than 32 points.

On July 19, Gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox accepts a gift from the Maryland Proud Boys while greeting supporters in Emmitsburg, Md. (Video: The Washington Post)

In addition to Schifanelli, two other candidates are now seeking the party chair position: Nicole Beus Harris, a political consultant who is married to conservative Rep. Andy Harris (R), and Baltimore County Republican activist Tim Fazenbaker.

Many Maryland politics-watchers did a double-take last month when Cox endorsed Harris instead of Schifanelli, who had run alongside him as a candidate for lieutenant governor. But Schifanelli herself said in an interview that it came as no surprise.

“That’s who Dan Cox is,” she said, describing her former running mate as someone who frequently changes his allegiances and positions. “It’s a behavioral issue.”

The Christian home-schooling world that shaped Dan Cox

Schifanelli said Cox frequently bristled at her lack of submissiveness during the campaign and that his move to back Harris arose from an “infantile tantrum” over their huge loss, which she said he blamed on her.

“The bottom line is, it was all my fault that he lost the election, because of my insubordination, among other things,” Schifanelli said, describing Cox’s views. Their relationship soured well before the general election, she said, and for much of the campaign the running mates rarely spoke to each other.

Cox did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Schifanelli and several allies running for state party offices are facing another challenge: Their nomination paperwork was rejected by state party officials, who said it arrived late. That means Schifanelli will have to convince committee members to allow floor nominations at Saturday’s convention if she is to have a chance at running the Maryland GOP.

An email shared with The Washington Post shows that Hollis Albert, a GOP activist and playground safety inspector, submitted the nomination paperwork for Schifanelli and five other office-seekers at 6:58 p.m. on Nov. 9. The deadline was 5 p.m. A committee did not actually meet to review and approve the candidates for state party offices until Nov. 20, according to party emails.

In an email to county central committee members — who vote for officers at the convention — outgoing party chairman Dirk Haire wrote that there had been “ample notice” of the nominating procedures in a convention packet distributed ahead of time and that “the deadline doesn’t ‘sneak up’ on anyone.” He said candidates whose paperwork wasn’t accepted could seek to open nominations from the floor, which can happen with a two-thirds vote.

Schifanelli said there is no specific reference to a time or date for the nomination deadline in the state party’s bylaws and that she should be eligible for the same consideration as her competitors.

“I told everyone I will not be accepting nominations from the floor, because I am not a floor mop,” she said.

Haire did not return calls. In an email to party central committee members a few days after the election, announcing that he would not run for another term as chairman, he said he hoped party officials “will set aside personal agendas and grievances and find a way to work together to elect all of our Republican nominees, and stop with the counterproductive and petty nonsense.”

He concluded with a warning about what could happen otherwise.

“If, instead, you insist on continuing with the circular firing squad, you can be certain that we will continue to have losses in voter registration,” he wrote, “and be unable to compete effectively in meaningful races in swing districts and statewide.”

Erin Cox contributed to this report.