Part of their message has been that O’Malley has taken the state far outside of the mainstream, particularly on tax and spending issues. An unpopular increase in the gas tax is scheduled to take effect next month, and O’Malley has led several divisive and time-consuming battles over issues such as same-sex marriage, the death penalty and gun control.
“The Republican brand is not particularly strong in Maryland, but I think a majority of people feel the state’s on the wrong track, and that’s an opportunity some candidate will have to take advantage of,” said Larry Hogan, chairman of Change Maryland, a grass-roots organization that has kept a running tally of O’Malley tax increases. Hogan explored running for the GOP nomination in 2010 and has not ruled out a 2014 bid.
Maryland has had only one Republican chief executive during the past generation — Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whom O’Malley soundly defeated in 2006 after a single term — and Democrats enjoy a more than 2-to-1 edge in party registration in the state, an advantage that has grown since Ehrlich was in office.
Democratic strategists say the Republican hopes in Maryland remain largely a pipe dream and are not too impressed with the way the GOP field is shaping up, even if Steele does get in.
“Lightning would have to strike five or six times in the same place for any of these guys to get elected,” said Mike Morrill, a veteran Democratic strategist who is not working for any of the 2014 gubernatorial candidates.
Aside from Steele, the Republican hopefuls are little-known outside their home regions and have not demonstrated an ability to raise the kind of money needed to win a statewide race, Morrill said.
The Democratic field is expected to include two better-funded, statewide officeholders, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, as well as Del. Heather R. Mizeur (Montgomery).
Morrill also questioned the effectiveness of running against O’Malley’s record, given he will not be on the ballot and there is no widespread clamoring to get rid of him. Forty-nine percent of voters approved of the job O’Malley is doing in a Washington Post poll published in March — a lukewarm number, but more than the number who disapproved (41 percent).
While none of the Republicans have detailed their strategy for winning, they have suggested parts of the electorate where they think they can make inroads, including with African Americans and Democrats in Montgomery County who have no strong allegiance to the party.
In an interview, Steele acknowledged that one of the factors he is weighing is whether there is “a formula” for another Republican to beat the odds.
“It’s trying to capture lightning in a bottle,” said Steele, who plans to decide whether to run after Labor Day. “It’s very difficult to do politically, but it can be done. I’m an eternal optimist. You can fight the fight and make your case.”
Steele boosters say he would be far better positioned than his GOP rivals to raise the kind of money needed to get the party’s message out. And they are hopeful that, as an African American, Steele could court more Democrats than other GOP candidates.
But Steele made limited headway in that regard in 2006, when he lost a U.S. Senate race against then-Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) by 10 percentage points.
In a recent appearance at a Maryland Young Republicans convention, Charles Lollar, another African American who is considering a GOP bid for governor, made the case that his party must do a better job of reaching out to traditionally Democratic voters.
“We have to be bold enough to go where people don’t agree with us,” Lollar said.
Appearing at the same event, Blaine Young, president of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, also spoke candidly about some of the obstacles he and other potential 2014 candidates for governor face. Though he has raised more money than any other GOP hopeful, Young acknowledged it’s tough to convince big donors that he has a real shot.
And Young said that Republicans will face an additional hurdle if Brown is the Democratic nominee because he would become the first African American governor of Maryland if he wins.
“It was neat to vote for the first African American president,” Young said. “They’re going to do the same thing with Brown.”
George, an Annapolis jewelry store owner, has promised to be a pro-business governor who will cut taxes, including rolling back the increase in the gas tax.
Craig has pledged to cut taxes, too. Part of the formula for winning, Craig said, is to get more Montgomery residents, in particular, to vote based on their interests rather than party registration. Many Republicans in the state’s largest county register as Democrats because local races are largely decided in Democratic primaries, he said.
Longtime GOP consultant Don Murphy said Craig is the most qualified candidate for governor in the field. Besides serving as county executive, he has been a mayor and city council member in Havre de Grace and served in both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly.
But that’s not enough for a Republican to get elected governor in Maryland, he said.
“It will take the Democrats to lose,” said Murphy, who is not working for any of the 2014 contenders. “I don’t think in the history of my lifetime Republicans have won — they’ve been in the right place at the right time.”