In politics, as in sports and in life, one can seldom overestimate the importance of drawing the right opponent. Perhaps the most contemplative of all Maryland politicians, former Governor Marvin Mandel, was known to advise that every incumbent should have at least one challenger – “just not much of one.” More recently, television host Ari Melber suggested that “in politics, your opponent can be far more important than your vision.

One is inevitably drawn to the wisdom of this viewpoint while observing the Maryland Republican Party, in its efforts to move beyond the Larry Hogan Era, dissolve into a rickety carnival of extremists, eccentrics, and outright oddities. 

On the surface, these should be heady times for the Maryland GOP. As President Biden’s domestic agenda remains stalled on Capitol Hill, and as the American people grow increasingly restive in this dystopian winter of Omicron, broken supply chains, and sticker shock in the produce aisle, the national Democratic Party is bracing for a midterm wipeout of historic proportions. 

Here at home, Hogan’s popularity continues to defy political gravity. At a stage when two-term governors have typically worn out their welcome with the electorate, he continues to log stratospheric approval ratings within both parties – the beneficiary of contentment with his minimalist policy agenda, affection for his endearing personal qualities, and admiration for his handling of the COVID pandemic. 

Waiting in the wings, as the presumptive heir to the Hogan brand and formidable fundraising and political operations, is Kelly Schulz – telegenic and eminently likable, with a resume of both legislative and executive experience that, in Hogan-esque fashion, could appeal to Republicans, moderates and independents alike.

Meanwhile, the Democratic race has become far murkier, as no fewer than ten candidates are battling for the nomination in a contest that – with less than five months to go – has yielded several highly impressive entries and no clear frontrunner. Whoever emerges victorious from this rugby scrum will face the unenviable task of reassembling a party that will have been fractured along demographic, ideological, and geographic lines.

So, you might be asking by now, what could possibly go wrong for the Maryland Republicans? To ask that question is to underestimate how political adventurists, extremists, and fools can join forces to snatch defeat from the jaws of presumptive victory.

Which brings us to Dan Cox and Gordana Schifanelli.  Cox, an unaccomplished first-term delegate from a predominantly rural district in Frederick and Carroll Counties, carries baggage that would even make Ellen Sauerbrey – who was all Tea Party years before the Tea Party even became a thing – shake her head in amazement, if not admiration. 

Cox has posted Tweets with Q-Anon hashtags. For those of you who are not familiar with Q-Anon, this is a movement powered by the belief that American political and corporate life is subversively controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles who have joined forces to run a global child sex-trafficking ring. Recently, hundreds of followers of this movement emerged from their parents’ unfinished basements and traveled to Dallas’ Dealey Plaza – convinced that John F. Kennedy Jr. would re-emerge from the crowd and announce his intentions to serve as Donald Trump’s running mate in 2024.

Yes. These eye-rattlers are allowed to drive, travel by airplane, and visit others without supervision. Be very afraid.

Cox, in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, repeatedly promoted the blatantly false narrative that the election was stolen from Trump by Joe Biden and, on January 6, personally arranged ground transportation for those involved in the fatal attack on the United States Capitol. Cox also declared Vice-President Mike Pence was a “traitor” for certifying the results of the election, and for this act of political statesmanship has received Trump’s official endorsement.

His running mate, Schifanelli, is hardly an oasis of stability in this desert of inanity. A Queen Anne’s County attorney, she first burst upon the public scene as the face of something called the “Kent Island Patriots.”  Her mission? To make life a living hell for then-Queen Anne’s County School Superintendent Andrea Kane. 

Kane’s sin, you ask? Acknowledging, in a 2020 letter to Queen Anne’s County public school parents, the importance of addressing racism in a school system that, like those everywhere, was processing the murder of George Floyd and the emergence of the national “Black Lives Matter” movement.  

Her Twitter feed is littered with rants against COVID vaccination and school mask policies. Recently, in a widely ridiculed post that was filled with misspellings, grammatical miscues, and unfounded rumors, she took to social media to accuse our public schools of indoctrinating our children by forcing them, in the finest traditions of Mao Zedong, to watch CNN for hours on end. 

By now, many of you are probably shrugging your shoulders with a collective “meh.”  Fringe candidates, you say, have always been part of the American political landscape. Anybody who can cover the filing fee can run for office. Their mere presence on the American political landscape doesn’t mean that anyone will take them seriously.

Well…uh…hmm. A recent poll of 565 Republican voters, conducted in late January by the Democratic Governor’s Association, found that Cox led Schulz by a 20-12 margin. The same poll found that when voters were made aware that Cox was endorsed by Trump, that lead swells to a staggering 52-18 margin.

In other words, a ticket that is populated by two people who either ARE certifiable lunatics or are simply posing as certifiable lunatics to captivate the Republican primary base has crossed the 50 percent threshold of victory in at least one reputable poll. While a significant number of voters in this deep blue state have given themselves permission to cross party lines to vote for moderate Republican gubernatorial candidates who they consider likable, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to suggest that this open-mindedness would extend to political extremists of this ilk.

To be sure, the race is still in its emergent stages. Grassroots political activity hasn’t truly commenced, campaign ads haven’t been aired, and the predictably flurry of attack mail hasn’t yet hit the mailboxes. There are simply too many variables that could influence the trajectory of this race between now and the June 28 primary that we can’t predict.

What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that, for all the money, endorsements, and institutional advantages that Maryland Democrats enjoy in statewide politics, the biggest threat to Republican success in 2022 could be its own capacity for self-destruction.


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