By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 18, 2009; B01
With an election year approaching, the Maryland Republican Party is saddled with debt. GOP registration in the state is slipping. Republican legislators have clashed angrily with the party chairman over his agenda. And today, party leaders will meet to consider ousting him.
James Pelura, an affable Anne Arundel County veterinarian and longtime GOP activist, is facing growing calls for his resignation because party officials are frustrated that they have not rebounded from the 2006 defeat of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation.
Republicans had hoped that Ehrlich's victory in 2002 would lead to a rebirth of their party in a state long dominated by Democrats. But with all major state and county offices on the ballot next year, few strong GOP candidates have emerged. At a time when state parties usually start stepping up their efforts, Republicans have yet to field a credible alternative to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) or effectively highlight his potential weaknesses, most notably a major tax increase two years ago.
Recruitment of candidates for the General Assembly -- where Republicans might have a better chance to make gains -- has gotten off to a slow start, too. And the state party's financial difficulties could undercut its critical role in registering voters and promoting candidates.
"He has been an abysmal failure at all of these things," House Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington) said of Pelura. "It's not about the issues of the day. It's about his job performance. It's most unfortunate that Jim has not realized that it's time for him to go."
The tenure of Pelura, who did not respond to requests for an interview, began just after Ehrlich's defeat, when the state party was demoralized and few other GOP activists were willing to take the job. Since then, during a difficult time for Republicans around the country, many markers of success have gone from bad to worse.
The share of registered Republicans in Maryland has slipped from nearly 29 to fewer than 27 percent, and the portion of Democrats has grown by a similar amount, from 55 to nearly 57 percent. Even small shifts increase the difficulty of winning statewide -- in 2006, O'Malley defeated Ehrlich by 6.5 percentage points.
The Maryland GOP is also close to broke. As of mid-January, the last time reports were due, the state party had $703.10 in a pair of state accounts and more than $57,000 in loans and bills. It reported nearly $9,000 in a separately maintained federal account as of last month.
By contrast, the Maryland Democratic Party had more than $755,000 in its two state accounts as of January and more than $35,000 in a federal account as of May.
Adding to Pelura's problems is a recent state elections board ruling that the party must pay $77,500 to a campaign account maintained by Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, for party legal expenses he covered in Maryland. Steele, a former Maryland party chairman and lieutenant governor, declined to be interviewed.
Maryland isn't the only state where Republicans are fighting each other as the party struggles to define itself after successive losses nationally. A bitterly divided party in Virginia recently booted a gaffe-prone party chairman who refused to resign, and recent battles have been waged in North Carolina and elsewhere for control of state parties.
In Virginia, the struggle within the state party was driven in large part by the traditional philosophical divide between economic conservatives, who emphasize tax and spending issues, and social conservatives, who are more concerned with issues such as gay marriage and abortion. In May, Republicans chose a successor to party Chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick, a socially conservative state delegate from Prince William County whose troubles included a joke last year in which he compared Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden.
Most of Pelura's detractors in Maryland say their problems with him involve his performance. John M. Kane, past chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, also attributed Pelura's difficulties to a failure to reach beyond the party's traditional base.
"If you insist on running your party based solely on ideological arguments, you're not going to fill anyone's tent," Kane said. "That's how you become irrelevant."
In many places, such as New Jersey, where Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) is behind in polls, the dismal economy has provided plenty of ammunition for Republicans to go after Democrats. But even as O'Malley's once-ambitious agenda has been blunted by the financial decline, the Maryland GOP has yet to find a foothold for a comeback. Besides tax increases, O'Malley's vulnerabilities include an inability to make good on a campaign promise to hold down energy rates.
The 31 members of the Maryland GOP executive committee are scheduled to convene today to discuss Pelura's recent actions, including his firing of the party's top staff member without consulting other leaders. The committee might consider a "no-confidence" vote and could call a special party convention in coming weeks to remove Pelura.
At an annual crab- and clambake on Maryland's Eastern Shore this week, the fired staffer, Justin Ready, mingled in a tent with party activists, including some potential candidates for governor. Pelura was nowhere to be seen.
One of those possible gubernatorial candidates, Charles Lollar, insisted that the party's crisis in leadership would be no more than a minor distraction.
"It's an in-house conversation that every family goes through," said Lollar, chairman of the Charles County Republican Central Committee, who will participate in today's meeting but did not say whether he would support Pelura's ouster.
He and others at the event argued that a message of returning to fiscal discipline in a state beset with budget problems will sell next year when voters start paying attention.
Lollar is one of a handful of little-known hopefuls for governor whose early jockeying has been overshadowed by speculation about whether Ehrlich will seek a rematch with O'Malley -- a contest even some of Ehrlich's confidants privately say could be tough. Ehrlich is not expected to announce a decision for a few more months.
In the meantime, others in the party say they are intent on putting the turmoil surrounding Pelura behind them.
In a recent letter to party officers, the two highest-ranking GOP delegates, House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (Calvert) and Shank, took aim at Pelura's leadership style and complained that he had been openly critical of some Republican legislators.
"Although the GOP may have its challenges as a party in this state and nationally these days, we find absolutely no value going forward to the 2010 elections with Dr. Pelura's continued undermining of our Republican elected officials," the delegates wrote. "We are done with the games he continues to play."
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.