A Battered GOP Clings to Hope of Resurgence

Michael S. Steele (R), conceding the U.S. Senate race to Benjamin L. Cardin last year, has remained visible since then, and some point to him as a possible candidate for governor in 2010.
Michael S. Steele (R), conceding the U.S. Senate race to Benjamin L. Cardin last year, has remained visible since then, and some point to him as a possible candidate for governor in 2010. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007

Maryland's former lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, arrived at a statewide Republican convention yesterday with a simple question, but one with profound implications for his party's future: "Are you in it for the long haul?" he asked the 200 Republican activists assembled in front of him.

These are hardly happy days for Maryland Republicans.

The party had hoped that the 2002 election of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as governor and Steele as lieutenant governor would provide a long-sought foothold to turn Maryland into a competitive state.

But six months after Ehrlich's defeat, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is enjoying solid approval ratings. He is touting accomplishments from a legislative session in which Republican lawmakers' numbers and influence were diminished. And even Ehrlich -- the state's only Republican governor in a generation -- has wondered aloud whether Maryland voters will embrace another statewide GOP candidate anytime soon.

Yet, for all that, there is a strand of optimism that has run through a series of county GOP dinners this spring that was evident yesterday in Annapolis as Steele, the party's unsuccessful U.S. Senate nominee last year, declared that "the sulking, the moping, the wailing and gnashing of teeth is over."

The Republicans' hope is that the return of one-party rule to Annapolis will lead Democrats to overreach and enact an agenda too liberal even for a state where their party still holds a nearly 2 to 1 advantage in registration. It is a notion that Democratic leaders are quick to dismiss.

But Democratic legislative leaders openly acknowledge that they plan to raise taxes to help fix a looming state budget deficit of $1.4 billion. And Republicans point to bills in this year's legislative session to grant in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants and to restore the voting rights of released felons, the latter of which passed and was signed by O'Malley.

"What we've seen is a very hard leftward lurch and a misinterpretation of the results of the last election," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert). "Eventually, there's going to be a backlash. If that's the case, the pendulum could swing back our way very quickly."

Departing Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman said such arguments amount to Republicans "looking at an empty glass and calling it half-full."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) acknowledged that raising taxes could expose Democrats politically but said he is confident that by the time O'Malley and lawmakers stand for reelection in 2010, "the public is going to be very well satisfied with how this government has been run."

O'Malley aides point out that the governor has pledged to cut spending before asking taxpayers for help and that other Democratic governors, including Virginia's Mark Warner, have survived similar crises and emerged politically stronger for having come across as demonstrating leadership.

"This administration has inherited significant challenges, including a $1.4 billion structural deficit, and the governor is reaching out to Democrats and Republicans alike to help find solutions to move our state forward," O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.

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