For Marylanders at Republican National Convention, it’s finally easy being red

August 24, 2012

As if crowning a nominee and whooping it up for a week weren’t enough, Republican delegates from deep-blue Maryland will get something extra out of their trip to Tampa: therapy.

“Coming from Montgomery County, Maryland, it’s almost like going to a support group: ‘Hi, I’m Lee and I’m a Republican,’ and I’m welcomed,” said Lee Cowen, 48, a Montgomery County lobbyist attending his fourth national convention.

At the GOP’s national convention every four years, Maryland Republicans get to do things many of their red-state counterparts take for granted. Like holding forth on cherished conservative ideals. Spouting off about liberals they loathe. And, even in a sea of strangers, hearing nothing in response but “amen.”

For one blissful, quadrennial blink of an eye, it’s easy being red.

“Everybody pretty much agrees with everybody else,” said Gloria Murphy, 51, a former preschool teacher from Catonsville in Baltimore County.

Which is hardly the case back home, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans statewide by more than 2 to 1.

Even in Baltimore County, the swing territory that helped native son Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. grab the governor’s mansion from Democrats in 2002, being a Republican is “not the easiest thing to be,” said Murphy, who in 2006 ran unsuccessfully for Orphans’ Court judge.

It’s even worse in die-hard Democratic bastions such as Montgomery.

“There’s a real stigma socially in Montgomery County to being known as a Republican and or being conservative,” Cowen said. “Any time I go to some party or charity fundraiser, people will see me and say, ‘Hey, Lee, there’s another Republican here. Come meet him.’ . . . Going down to Tampa or any convention, where you’ve got tens of thousands of people who agree with a lot of the same opinions, is a very fun and exciting time.”

The plight of state Republicans is not as bad as some make it out to be, insists Louis Pope, chairman of the Maryland delegation and of Mitt Romney’s Maryland campaign. A state nickname, after all, is “America in miniature”: There are big cities where Democrats dominate, rural areas where conservatives hold sway and suburban swing territory in between.

“Maryland gets maligned as a totally Democratic state,” he said. “Republicans actually hold more offices in the state of Maryland than Democrats: 165 to 164. . . . We control county governments in 16 of the 23 counties.”

But because Democrats dominate large population centers — Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the Baltimore City — every statewide office is in Democratic hands. Both U.S. senators are Democrats, as are six of the state’s eight members of the House of Representatives.

John W.E. Cluster Jr. feels right at home in northern Baltimore County, which the retired police officer and small-business owner represents as a Republican state delegate. But to him, the State House feels like another planet.

“The leadership in Annapolis doesn’t go along with what our views back home are,” said Cluster, 58, who went on to note two controversial issues that the legislature approved and that face voter referendums in November. “The same-sex marriage issue — obviously they passed that. But when I put out a survey in my district, it was probably 20 to 1 [against]. Same with in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.”

He expects to find himself more in sync with convention-goers.

“It’s nice to be around like-minded people, and for a week, that’s what I’ll do down in Florida,” Cluster said.

That is not to say the Republican National Convention lavishes special attention on Marylanders. Primo convention hall seats go to states that vote reliably Republican for president. Maryland, one of just six states that, along with the District, in 1980 wanted to give President Jimmy Carter a second term, hasn’t gone Republican since 1988, when it chose George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis. The state delegation will be seated in the rear.

“We have to sit in the way back because we’re not relevant,” said Murphy’s husband, former state delegate Don Murphy. “We’re right there with Rhode Island and Vermont. In 2008, we were seated right in front of the CNN booth. The alternates had better seats.”

In fact, Gloria Murphy ran as an alternate this year to secure seats in the risers, which offer a better view than rear floor seats. Regardless of the second-rate seating, Don Murphy feels like he’s among friends. This from a man who is hardly a run-of-the-mill Republican. Hailing from the party’s libertarian wing, he is a lobbyist who has worked on behalf of medical marijuana and nudists.

“Ninety-plus percent of the time, we agree,” Murphy said of himself and fellow conventioneers. “It’s nice to know there are others like us in the country, as opposed to what you see in Maryland.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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