By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009; B01
WESTMINSTER, Md. -- As red wine flowed, diehard party activists in one of Maryland's most Republican counties reveled here one night last week amid several encouraging signs nationally, including President Obama's sagging poll numbers and a backlash to the Democrat's health-care plan that has motivated conservatives across the country.
But as their dinner drew to a close, a sobering question persisted: Will Maryland Republicans, a fractured minority in one of the most Democratic states in the nation, be in a position to capitalize on next year's elections?
So far, that appears uncertain, in part because of developments last week, including the resignation of the state GOP chairman, James Pelura. He is leaving behind a party that is struggling to pay its debt and has yet to field frontline candidates for next year's races for governor, U.S. Senate and the two other statewide races. And in recent years, Democrats have built upon a 2 to 1 advantage in party registration in Maryland.
The steep climb comes as Republicans in other states appear far more energized and organized. In elections this fall, GOP candidates are leading in polls in Virginia and New Jersey, two states where Obama won and where Democrats have controlled the governor's mansions for the past eight years. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently warned that in 2010, Democrats nationally are facing their toughest midterm election ever.
Even some Republicans concede that another disappointing election could devastate hopes for years to come of turning Maryland into a truly competitive, two-party state. That notion seemed plausible after the 2002 election of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the state's first Republican governor in a generation. But if the GOP does not rebound from Ehrlich's 2006 defeat to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), his one term in office might start to seem more like an anomaly than a harbinger.
"The key thing is going to be whether the candidates who run can tap into this energy," said Mykel Harris, chairman of the Prince George's County Republican Central Committee, who traveled north to attend the dinner, where speakers took shots at the "central planners" and "pompous elites" in charge in Washington.
The only potential Republican candidate for statewide office who worked the crowd of almost 100 at the Carroll County Lincoln-Reagan dinner was Larry Hogan, a former state Cabinet secretary. Hogan announced last week that he would start "testing the waters" for a gubernatorial bid.
Although his decision was greeted warmly by party activists, it was also a stark reminder of the biggest uncertainty hanging over next year's election -- whether Ehrlich will run again. Ehrlich told reporters last week that he feels no pressure to decide whether to seek a rematch next year with O'Malley, saying: "I feel I've earned that right."
His posture has started to weigh on other party leaders, however, who fear that no other candidate will be in a position to raise money needed to compete with O'Malley on late notice.
"Frankly, I think that Bob needs to make a decision," Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 1994 and 1998, said in an interview. "Like any candidate, he needs to be out there now, working to rebuild the grass roots of the party, which has been pretty dormant for the last few years."
The GOP has also yet to field a strong challenger to the long-serving Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who is up for reelection next year. No serious candidates have emerged to run against Maryland's other two separately elected statewide officials, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Comptroller Peter Franchot, both Democrats from Montgomery County.
Despite the state's Democratic tilt, O'Malley and other Democrats have vulnerabilities. The projection last week of an even larger state budget shortfall ensured that O'Malley will finish out his term with additional rounds of deep spending cuts. And Republicans are eager to remind voters about tax increases earlier in his term.
That, coupled with the national mood, should set the Republicans up nicely -- at least in theory, said James Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.
"If ever there's a good year for Maryland Republicans, it would be this coming one," said Gimpel, who predicted that O'Malley and Mikulski will nevertheless win reelection. "There are some victories to be had, but not without candidates."
Some Republican leaders say their top priority should be regaining the 1st Congressional District seat that includes Maryland's Eastern Shore. The unexpected 2006 victory of Democrat Frank Kratovil left the Republicans with only one representative in the state's delegation in Washington.
That member, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), delighted the crowd here when he referred to Obama's health care plan as "a cure worse than the disease," and called the scandal enveloping ACORN, the liberal political organizing group, a "gift that keeps on giving."
Although dinner attendees and other GOP activists across the state said they remain hopeful about the governor's race, some suggested they should be satisfied with more modest gains next year.
"I think success should be defined not necessarily by who's in Annapolis but by what happens at the local level," said Vincent Pacelli, who is running for county commissioner in Carroll, where Republicans account for 51 percent of registered voters. "Even if we gain a handful in the state [legislature], it could be classified as a success. It would be something to build on."
Republicans hold 36 of 141 seats in the House of Delegates, seven fewer than in 2006, and 14 of 47 in the Senate. The small numbers have largely marginalized their voices since Ehrlich lost the governorship.
"They've offered critiques, but I don't think there's been any issue that a majority of Democrats in Annapolis wanted to pass that hasn't been able to get through," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
In the state Senate, where filibusters are allowed, Republicans have held out hope in recent elections of increasing their numbers to 19, which would be enough to block legislation if the party sticks together. Next year, "the goal is to elect as many Republican senators as possible," said Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard). "Five more would be fantastic."
GOP prospects for winning statewide races has been made more difficult in recent years by voter registration trends, fueled in part by Democratic gains in the Washington suburbs.
During Pelura's tenure, the share of registered Republicans in Maryland has slipped from almost 29 to 26.6 percent, and the portion of Democrats has grown from 55 to almost 57 percent. Even small shifts increase the difficulty of winning statewide: In 2006, O'Malley defeated Ehrlich by 6.5 percentage points.
In recent days, GOP leaders have tried to minimize the impact of the infighting that preceded Pelura's resignation announcement. But they acknowledge the party apparatus is much weaker than they would like. Traditionally, the party spearheads voter registration efforts, helps recruit candidates and coordinates get-out-the-vote efforts -- all of which take money.
As of mid-January, the last time reports were due, the state GOP had $703.10 in a pair of state accounts. It reported almost $498.58 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 almost $112,000 in a federal account as of July.
John White, an Annapolis marketing executive who is among those angling to succeed Pelura as chairman, said the Maryland GOP has "a really good opportunity to take advantage of the national-level questions about spending beyond our means." But, White said, the party needs money to effectively communicate its message.