Changing national political tide yet to lift Md. GOP's hopes

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., above, hasn't gained ground on Gov. Martin O'Malley, polls indicate.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., above, hasn't gained ground on Gov. Martin O'Malley, polls indicate. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010

In Massachusetts, Republicans have claimed a Senate seat and are taking a run at the governor's mansion. In Illinois, they are gunning to grab the seat once held by President Obama and have their best chance in years to win a governor's race.

In California, Connecticut, Delaware and the other bluest of the blue states, Republicans are also mounting strong challenges for statewide races that would be unthinkable in less friendly political climates.

And then there's Maryland.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose election as governor eight years ago ushered in unfulfilled promises of a GOP resurgence in the heavily Democratic state, appears poised for a comeback attempt.

But with barely seven months until the November election, Republicans have no declared candidates for governor, a slate of little-known Senate hopefuls that some have dubbed "the seven dwarfs" and no one for attorney general. The only Republican running for comptroller, the state's chief tax collector, happens to be a high school student.

Brendan Madigan, 18, said he stepped forward because everyone else in his party is afraid of losing. "No Republican has a chance," Madigan said, but "someone had to step up."

The party's main hopes rest on Ehrlich. But with most public polls showing Ehrlich no closer to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) than he was four years ago, some Republicans say that the more realistic goal might be picking up seats in the General Assembly, where Democrats hold commanding majorities in both chambers, and recapturing a congressional seat lost two years ago to Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D).

"We will have some victories, there's no doubt about that," said Don Murphy, a Republican consultant and former state delegate. "But this is Maryland. The bar is pretty low. We don't aspire to much."

Official spokesmen for the state party offer rosier assessments, suggesting that the environment is ripe for Ehrlich's return and that one of the party's Senate hopefuls could pull off a come-from-nowhere victory over Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), much like Scott Brown's feat in Massachusetts.

But the reality is that Maryland Republicans are not well positioned to take advantage of the dynamics that are bolstering GOP hopes nationally.

Since Ehrlich lost to O'Malley in 2006, Democrats have broadened a 2-to-1 advantage in party registration, driven in large part by swelling enrollment in the Washington region. Demoralized Republicans have spent much of that time pointing fingers at one another, and the state party has struggled to stay afloat financially.

Not upwardly inclined

Perhaps most problematic, the GOP bench remains remarkably shallow, with few officeholders willing to risk their seats to seek statewide positions.

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