By GRAHAM MOOMAW
WALDORF (April 9, 2010)—The Maryland Republican Party hit the streets this week for a series of town hall meetings, hoping to position itself as the party that's willing to listen to voter frustration and anger going into a contentious 2010 election cycle.
Audrey Scott, the Maryland Republican Party chairwoman, invited audiences to tell her what the party is doing right, what it's doing wrong and what it can do better. During two stops Thursday near the end of the nine-stop tour called "Take Back Annapolis and Washington Week," attendees took her up on her request with honest—and often loud—criticism.
Though some are expecting a Republican swing this year due to a poor economy and an unpopular health care bill, angry Marylanders made it clear they don't want to return the same old Republican Party to power.
At a meeting in Waldorf that drew a crowd of about 200, southern Maryland conservatives spoke out about their views of a party that lost power by straying from its principles.
"The Republicans blew it!" shouted Ken Carkhuff, a former candidate for county commissioner in St. Mary's County. "We got comfortable with power and no longer did what the citizens say matters."
Mark Cizler, an army veteran from Mechanicsville, said that things had been "jacked-up" in Washington for a long time and that Republicans had become complacent.
"We know that and we're gonna change it! That's why I'm here!" Scott responded.
Earlier that morning, Scott took questions and comments from a much older crowd of about 50 at the Leisure World retirement community in Montgomery County.
John Erzen, a retired contractor, said the Tea Party movement can help Republicans put forth a clear vision of what the party stands for instead of what it stands against.
"The issue is the Republican Party is not coming up with a roadmap or vision of the future. We're just talking about how bad these other guys are and it's better to vote for the Republicans," said Erzen. "We need to take an offensive structure, go for the moral high ground."
Erzen later stood up and lectured a Democratic Party staffer who was filming from the back of the room, telling him he should go take pictures of the effects of Marxism in Russia.
Scott welcomed the call to align with the Tea Party movement, saying that Republicans have the "exact same ideology" of limited government, lower taxes and individual responsibility.
At both meetings, Scott energized the party faithful by pointing to a string of Republican victories since 2008—each more improbable than the last—in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
The governor's race and the congressional race in the Eastern Shore's 1st District will likely be the highlights of the upcoming political season. Both are expected to be competitive rematches featuring candidates already familiar to voters and each other.
Former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich officially announced this week his bid for a rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley, and state Sen. Andy Harris is the Republican favorite to win a shot at unseating Rep. Frank Kratovil, D-Stevensville, in the 1st District.
Though Maryland Republicans can sometimes feel powerless in a state where Democrats outnumber them 2-1, Scott said there is reason for optimism this year.
"The glimmer of hope has been almost nonexistent. And so it would have really taken someone who wanted to be a sacrificial lamb to step forward and say 'I'm running as a Republican,'" Scott said. "Not any longer. That glimmer of hope has become a lightning bolt."
In an interview after the meeting in Waldorf, Scott said the town hall tour had shown her that voter enthusiasm and anger are still high.
"People are upset. And people want a government that listens to them." said Scott.
Kim Jorns, the party's executive director, said the state GOP had gotten more requests for town hall meetings than it could handle, and that more events will be scheduled in the future.
Dave Schwartz, the Maryland director for the free-market advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, said it's "en vogue" to host political events that let voters vent, but the best thing Republican candidates can do to win Tea Party votes is to espouse free-market principles.
Scott said she's a pragmatist who knows that her party probably can't take back a majority in Annapolis or Washington, but she wants Republicans to have a seat at the table and break the "monopoly" of Democratic control.
GOP strategist Don Murphy, who attended one of the town halls, said he saw some anger so strong that a mere seat at the table wouldn't be able to fix it.
"I think they want to break the table into little pieces and use it for firewood and burn the place down," Murphy said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.