Author and former nonprofit chief Wes Moore, a Democrat, defeated far-right Republican Dan Cox to become the first Black person elected governor in Maryland history, the Associated Press projected Tuesday.
Moore, 44, delivered a major victory to Democrats in a tough national election cycle for the party, reclaiming the governor’s mansion after eight years of Republican rule on a vow to “leave no one behind” — a message that resonated in a diversifying state where people of color have recently become the majority.
“It is not lost on me that I’ve made a little history myself here tonight. But I also know that I wasn’t the first one to try,” Moore told supporters. “I am humbled to be a part of this legacy. … That’s not why we got into this race. The history that matters most to us is the history that we — and the people of this state — are going to make together over the next four years.”
Moore, the son of a Jamaican immigrant who raised him on her own, now becomes just the third Black person elected governor in American history — after Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia.
A political newcomer, Moore swayed Maryland voters with charisma and optimism and is seen as a rising star among a new generation of leaders in the Democratic Party.
Cheers erupted at Moore’s victory party in Baltimore as the race was called, with “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang playing over the loudspeakers. In an Annapolis hotel ballroom, Cox’s daughter Patience Faith Cox took the stage to tell the supporters peering up at a television showing the Associated Press had called the race “don’t believe anything you see on there.”
With Democrats maintaining a 2-1 advantage in voter registration, and an electorate that leans toward moderation, a Democratic victory appeared inevitable after Cox clinched the GOP nomination. Polls showed Moore with nearly a 30 percentage point advantage less than six weeks before Election Day.
Cox tacked right, unable to build the cross-party coalition that lifted Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, the popular and term-limited incumbent. Hogan disavowed Cox as unqualified.
Cox harnessed conservative grievances on coronavirus mandates, emphasized parental rights in schools and maintained ties to former president Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Maryland.
Moore hewed closely to a message of inclusion and progress, saying during the campaign, “We leave no one behind. And that is not just a mantra, It is a value statement. And it is not just a value statement. Come January, that will be the new mission of this state.”
Moore’s running mate, Aruna Miller, a former state delegate, will be the state’s first immigrant and first woman of color to serve as lieutenant governor. The barrier-breaking slate also included U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), who would become the first Black attorney general, and Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City) as the first woman to serve as comptroller.
“With Moore, it’s the intangible. He felt trustworthy,” said former middle school teacher Alfonso Sasieta, 30, as he cast his vote in Hyattsville on Tuesday. He said he is excited to see what’s in store for Moore. “I think that as a Black man with certain lived experiences, those are going to give him insight on what policy looks like.”
Blocks from Thurgood Marshall’s childhood home in West Baltimore, Sarah Holley, 75, emerged from the voting booth Tuesday having cast her vote for Moore, a blue pin stamped with “WES” on her hat.
“It’s a true sign of progress of what we as a people can do,” said Holley, a retired publicist who is Black.
At another Baltimore polling place, one Black woman clutched Moore’s hands and prayed with him before he hopped back onto a blue and yellow campaign bus.
While campaigning, Moore publicly redirected talk of firsts, offering a version of his reply at an event with Hillary Clinton last month: “The weight of making history does sit on us, and it’s humbling. But that’s not the assignment.”
Moore built a statewide coalition around issues like reducing crime, boosting economic opportunity and ending child poverty — goals for which he crafted ambitious policies with no price tag. When pressed for details, he would point to the state’s multibillion-dollar surplus as a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to change state government.
Moore also broached topics often monopolized by Republicans, advocating to reduce the estate tax and embracing patriotism.
“You cannot love your country if you hate half the people in it. Real patriotism means bringing people together,” Moore said during his victory speech.
“Wes represents Maryland’s future in a bold way. He is savvy in business; he is a veteran who has taken real risks on behalf of our country in combat, and he’s also a shade darker than anybody who’s ever come before,” said former NAACP president Ben Jealous, who made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018.
A former investment banker, Johns Hopkins University football player and graduate, Rhodes scholar, Army paratrooper and officer in Afghanistan, and White House fellow who once led the Robinhood Foundation, the country’s largest poverty-fighting nonprofit, Moore attracted a star-studded list of backers. He had fundraisers headlined by Oprah Winfrey and Spike Lee, a campaign ad filmed with former president Barack Obama and multiple rallies alongside President Biden.
His nearly two-year campaign centered on his personal story of facing adversity, detailed in his best-selling book “The Other Wes Moore,” a narrative that begins when his father died in front of him at age 3 of a misdiagnosed illness. His tough teenage years were tempered by the military school where his mother sent him to escape the Bronx. He now lives in Baltimore with his wife, Dawn, a veteran of Maryland’s political scene, and their two children: Mia, 11, and James, 9.
He addressed them during his victory speech, saying, “I want you to know what I want every other child in the state to know: that you are never in a room that you don’t belong in.”
Moore’s political ambitions took decades to come to fruition.
“Every time I go back to New York,” Moore told the Palm Beach Post in 1998, “I see my old neighborhood deteriorating, and I ask myself, ‘What can I do about it?’ Politics is where the power is to do something about it.”
He broke through a crowded primary field that included well-known political heavyweights to compete with Cox, a freshman state delegate and father of 10 from Frederick who rocketed past Hogan’s handpicked, moderate-Republican successor.
Cox, who said he believes the 2020 election was “stolen,” was buoyed by an endorsement from Trump and derided by Hogan as a “wack job” unworthy of endorsement. (Cox unsuccessfully sued and tried to impeach Hogan over pandemic restrictions.)
“Wes is highly qualified … but Cox is a real blessing for Wes,” said Alvin Thornton, retired political science department chairman at Howard University.
Despite a Trump fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago last month, Cox’s campaign never raised more than a tenth of Moore’s nearly $16 million in resources. In a state where GOP leaders win by appealing to independents and moderates, Cox stuck to his conservative values. He focused his message on “freedom” from vaccine mandates, school curriculums that discuss gender identity and the income taxes that make up the backbone of state revenue.
Moore “was given the good fortune of having Dan Cox as his opponent,” said Carl Snowden, a long time civil rights activist in Anne Arundel County. “Especially because there were a lot of people, including African Americans, who were comfortable with Hogan.”
Outside Wheaton High School, Charles Williams, 42, a plumber, was one of the Black voters who thought Hogan was “pretty cool.”
But when it came time to vote for a successor to the Republican, Williams said Cox didn’t hold much appeal, so he backed Moore, saying he was “for the people.”
“With me it doesn’t really matter, Republican, Democrat, it’s who gets the job done,” Williams said.
Cox repeatedly declined to say whether he would accept the results of the election, citing concern with a court-approved change to when mail-in ballots can be opened.
At 11 p.m. Tuesday, Cox addressed supporters and did not concede but said, “We’re at a point where it’s not looking good, but I can tell you this: Only 50 percent of the votes are counted.”
Maryland’s record for lopsided gubernatorial victories was set in 1986, when then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer was elected governor with 82 percent of the vote.
Moore’s political ties in Maryland began with an internship with former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, the city’s first Black mayor. Schmoke recommended Moore as a Rhodes scholar, and when Moore finished with Oxford, Schmoke suggested a job in the private sector to enhance his credibility when he ran for office.
“It was clear to me … he would get more support from the business community if he understood the private sector,” Schmoke said in a recent interview.
When Moore’s first political campaign finally started, Schmoke asked law professor and venerated Maryland political organizer Larry Gibson to consider helping. Gibson had helped launch the political careers of Schmoke and Wayne K. Curry, the first Black person elected to lead Prince George’s County. Earlier this year, Gibson became a senior adviser and a fixture during the primary, attending events and posting campaign signs in far-flung regions of the state.
This spring, Gibson said he spent his 80th birthday climbing steps to door-knock for Moore.
Moore also sought advice from a titan among America’s Black political leaders: Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, who encouraged him to articulate a vision to all voters, not just Democrats.
“I know what an incredible talent Wes is. I know his sense of generational responsibility, that we are here to leave things better for those who come behind us, but not everybody is going to know that unless he explains it,” Patrick said of his advice to Moore.
Moore said most of their talks have had little to do with the possibility he would make history, but with how to get elected and effectively govern.
“He’s not telling me not to appreciate the fact that we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before,” Moore said in a mid-October interview. But “that thing will fade very quickly from the conversation. The thing that will stick is: What kind of governor was he?”
Moore’s victory follows Maryland’s complicated racial past.
Maryland never left the Union, but it was a slave state with Confederate sympathizers, and the generations that followed the Civil War erected prominent tributes to figures such as the author of the infamous Dred Scott ruling, which declared Black people inherently unfit for citizenship. One of those statutes stayed at the state Capitol until five years ago.
On Tuesday, Richard W. Thomas Jr., 80, proudly displayed an “I voted” sticker on his bright-orange sweatshirt as he shuffled out of the Silver Spring civic building.
Thomas, who is Black, said he remembered a time when “we couldn’t vote,” and he came ready to wait as long as necessary to cast his ballot for Moore. He was first in line.
The one race he followed this year was the gubernatorial contest.
“Wes Moore is my man,” he said.
While campaigning this fall in Prince George’s County, a D.C. suburb home to Black affluence, Moore directly addressed the state’s legacy.
“This is a state of Harriet Tubman, this is the state of Frederick Douglass, and this is the state of Thurgood Marshall,” he said.
“This is the state that the building that we will be sworn in, the state’s Capitol, it was built by the hands of the slave. The dock, the Annapolis dock, that is just walking distance from the state Capitol, is one of the largest slave docks in this country’s history. I understand the history of this state,” he said. “We will accomplish something that for those who came before us, they never thought was possible. They hoped. They dreamed. They fought. But we have a unique opportunity to do something.”
This story has been updated with comments from Wes Moore.
Lauren Lumpkin, Lateshia Beachum, Ian Duncan, Shwetha Surendran, Joe Heim and Steve Thompson contributed to this report.