Maryland GOP holds off on idea of opening primaries to independent voters

November 23, 2013

The Maryland Republican Party took no action Saturday on the idea of opening its primaries to independent voters but left open the possibility of doing so after next year’s elections.

A report on the controversial issue was delivered to party leaders Friday but did not come up for discussion during the general session of the Maryland GOP’s fall convention in Annapolis, the last opportunity to change the rules before the June 2014 primaries.

“With it just being presented last night, people were a little uncomfortable,” said Joe Cluster, the party’s executive director. “It would be a big change.”

Some Republican activists have argued that opening primaries in Maryland would increase the party’s chances of picking a nominee better positioned to prevail in a state where registered Democrats outnumber them more than 2 to 1. Maryland has elected only one Republican governor — Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — during the past generation.

The report prepared by a committee of GOP activists made no recommendation but noted that Massachusetts and Rhode Island, two other heavily Democratic states, have actually elected more Republican governors than Democratic ones in recent decades. Both states allow unaffiliated voters to participate in GOP primaries.

“I think that as a Republican party in Maryland, we need to do everything we can to reach out to new voters,” Katie Nash, a Maryland GOP activist who favors making a change, said outside the convention hall Saturday.

Brian Griffiths, chairman of the Maryland Young Republicans, took the opposite view.

“I think Republican nominees should reflect the Republican party, whether that’s for better or for worse,” Griffiths said.

On the convention floor, delegates heard several speeches playing up their party’s prospects of winning the governor’s mansion back next year. The upset victory of Republican Mike Pantelides in this month’s mayor’s race in Annapolis was held up as inspiration.

Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick) told delegates that Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), one of the leading Democratic candidates for governor, should not taken anything for granted.

“If the current lieutenant governor thinks he’s in for a coronation, he needs to sit down and have a cup of coffee with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend,” Brinkley said, referring to a former lieutenant governor who was defeated by Ehrlich in the 2002 gubernatorial race.

On Friday, Larry Hogan, a former Cabinet secretary under Ehrlich, told Republican activists that he plans to become a candidate for the GOP nomination in January.

Several other Republicans have already entered the race, including Harford County Executive David R. Craig, Del. Ronald A. George (Anne Arundel) and Charles County businessman Charles Lollar.

On Saturday, the convention delegates also voted down a proposed resolution that would have urged GOP officeholders convicted of crimes that result in incarceration to resign.

The measure was inspired by the travails of Del. Donald H. Dwyer (R-Anne Arundel), who has been sentenced to 60 days in jail for alcohol-related offenses. Dwyer is being allowed to serve his sentence on weekends, and he is expected to continue participating in House sessions when lawmakers return in January.

“This resolution restores credibility in the system and belief in our party,” said John Fiastro Jr., chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee and one of the backers of the resolution.

Opponents, including Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil), argued that the resolution was too broadly drawn. Smigiel said that gun owners such as himself could be arrested if they drive into the District with shell casings in their car, for example.

The convention delegates defeated the resolution 202 to 49.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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