Maryland Republican Party Lacks Stars, Faces Uphill Struggle


ST. PAUL, Minn. (Sept. 9, 2008)—Now that the party's over, the Maryland Republican Delegation has come home from its national party convention to an uphill struggle to regain its former glory.

When the national Republican Party convened in 2004, the Maryland GOP had a governor, Robert Ehrlich, and the state's first black elected statewide official, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele. Two years later, Ehrlich lost re-election, and Steele lost the race for U.S. Senate.

To top that off, the party now holds just 37 of 141 seats in the House of Delegates and 14 of 47 seats in the Senate. Maryland's registered Republicans are outnumbered 2 to 1 by Democrats.

To turn things around, Maryland's Republicans need to scout for new leadership and modify their platform in order to appeal to an electorate more moderate than the national party, political analysts say.

"After Ehrlich and Steele, who do they have?" said Michael Cain, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland (SMCM).

The Maryland GOP lacks "up-and-coming stars" and it needs to create and nurture Steele, the state's most promising Republican leader, said Zach Messitte, former St. Mary's College of Maryland professor and now vice provost for international programs at the University of Oklahoma.

Steele was the most prominent Maryland Republican at the Republican National Convention, which ended Thursday. He spoke to the more than 30,000 delegates, alternates and media representatives gathered to nominate Arizona Sen. John McCain for president.

But the rest of the state's top Republicans stayed home, including the only two GOP congressmen, Roscoe Bartlett, of Frederick, and Wayne Gilchrest, of Kennedyville; as well as state Sen. Andrew Harris, who knocked off Gilchrest in the primary, and Ehrlich.

Ehrlich announced his decision not to attend just before the convention opened citing his schedule.

Bartlett has never been a fan of the conventions and said this time around: "I'm not so sure we need this sort of congregation."

Harris did not attend in part because of a scheduled fundraiser on Sept. 4, the last day of the convention, Chris Meekins, his campaign manager said. But "the primary reason was so he could focus on District 1, he wanted to meet the voters—the fundraiser was secondary," said Meekins.

On day two of the convention, Gilchrest endorsed Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr. for state Senate, a state's attorney who already has Republican backers, including Roy Crow, president of the Kent County Board of Commissioners and Jack Cole, president of the Caroline County Board of Commissioners.

Harris' absence "shows how competitive the race between he and Kratovil is and how short McCain's coattails will be in Maryland," said Cain. "I think Harris' campaign is worried that he won't get a big boost from McCain supporters."

The spotlight was intensely fixed on Steele since Maryland's elite were no-shows.

Steele is "everything the (Maryland Republican) Party could want in a leader," said Bartlett, however, he hasn't made known his intentions for 2010, when Sen. Barbara Mikulski's term comes up and the governor's election is scheduled.

When asked about his role in the Maryland Republicans' future, Steele defaulted to: "My role will be whatever the party leadership wants it to be."

But there won't be much of a future without Steele, according to Cain, who said "he represents the future of the Republican Party and they need to find a way to appeal to black and Hispanic voters."

"The convention, like the party, is overwhelmingly white, a little bit older and that is not the demographic of the country for the next 10 years," Cain continued.

In addition to grooming more candidates, the Maryland GOP needs to reconsider its platform. With the historical trend of moderate-to-liberal Republicans being elected, such as Charles "Mac" Mathias and Spiro Agnew, the state party needs to moderate its positions.

"The public is best served with a truly open government and we need the balance of a good dialogue. That doesn't happen when one party runs everything. Marylanders are starting to realize that and will move toward it," said Bartlett.

Kratovil's Republican endorsements are evidence that the platform needs work, Cain said.

State Republicans push "the same old mantra" and "are not putting forth a coherent system of policies," said Cain. "They need to apply new positions to important issues that the Democrats have already taken the lead on, like the environment and energy."

Steele acknowledged the need for change and said, "We can't keep our heads in the sand and fall back into the old playbooks that we are comfortable with that quite frankly have no use anymore."

With less than a 30 percent hold in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, the only way to press forward is to reach out to the moderates and Democrats.

"It's a long way up," said Messitte, "but there's always the chance lightning could strike."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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