By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007; C05
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.
In his remarks, Steele said that the party got "smacked" last year but pointed to the past as a source of hope.
In 1994, the GOP nominee for governor, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, was a decided underdog against the Democratic candidate, then-Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening. Yet Sauerbrey, a Baltimore area legislator, fell only 6,000 votes short of Glendening by courting alienated suburbanites with the promise of a tax cut.
In a 1998 rematch, Glendening won comfortably, and Sauerbrey's defeat led to a round of hand-wringing about the GOP's future in Maryland. But Ehrlich was elected just four years later.
Both Ehrlich and Steele have remained visible since their defeats. Steele is leading GOPAC, a national group that seeks to groom Republican candidates.
Ehrlich and his wife co-host a weekly talk show on a radio station in Baltimore. Ehrlich has been the keynote speaker at several GOP dinners this spring. And last month, he sent out a fundraising letter critical of O'Malley and legislative leaders on such issues as taxes and immigration.
Associates say Ehrlich is merely keeping his options open. But Democrats question whether the GOP has anywhere else to look for a candidate.
The only two Republican county executives in Maryland are Anne Arundel County's John Leopold, a party maverick, and Harford County's David Craig. Both O'Donnell, the state House minority leader, and Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick) are in their first year in those positions.
Maryland GOP Chairman James Pelura said yesterday that it is too early to know who might lead his party's ticket in 2010. But he acknowledged that it might be more realistic for the party to gain seats in the legislature than to win back the governorship so soon.
Pelura said party activists are getting reenergized and pointed to an annual "Lincoln Day" dinner in Kent County that was held for the first time this spring after a lapse of several years. About 50 people gathered for that event, held at a retirement center, where part of the dining room was partitioned off for the event.
Thomas N. Yeager, the new chairman of Kent's GOP central committee, said there is a new sense of purpose among county activists.
"The fact that we lost the governorship lets us know that we have to be out there, and we have to be active," Yeager said.
After dinner, attendees moved to a multipurpose room where copies of a glossy, full-color booklet recounting Ehrlich's accomplishments had been placed on folding chairs.
Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore County), the visiting keynote speaker, predicted that Marylanders would be "mad as hell" when taxes are raised. And McDonough mocked Democrats for passing several "wacko" bills, including one that O'Malley later vetoed that would have made twice-convicted drug dealers eligible for parole.
"When I was campaigning, I didn't have one person come up to me and say, 'Pat, can you let the drug dealers out a little earlier?' " McDonough said to laughter.
But McDonough also offered criticism of his own party, suggesting that recent GOP efforts to reach out to minority voters would have been better directed at conservative Democrats in the suburban counties ringing Baltimore. Those are the places that Ehrlich's performance in 2006 fell short of that of 2002.
Asked about potential candidates for governor in 2010, most activists that night pointed to Ehrlich or Steele.
"I would hope that Michael Steele would consider it," said Susan Pritchett, a member of the Kent GOP central committee. "He could bring us back. But I could support either of them. They're my two shining stars."