Drubbed in statewide races, Maryland GOP may drop top-down approach to party growth

Former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. conceded the governor's race in a brief speech to his supporters at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; 8:24 PM

After becoming Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had a simple prescription for how his party could build on his 2002 victory in the heavily Democratic state: win more big races.

Eight years later, leading Republicans in Maryland say it may be time to start thinking smaller.

Their reassessment follows Ehrlich's second loss in as many elections to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) - this time, in what was a banner year for the GOP elsewhere - and is being fueled by a free-wheeling race to take over the chairmanship of the Maryland Republican Party next month.

Among the sobering questions being asked: Should the party largely concede statewide races to Democrats in the coming four years and instead focus on bolstering GOP numbers in local governments?

Despite getting shellacked in statewide contests, Maryland Republicans actually made significant gains Nov. 2 in races for county commissioner and council seats, expecially in less-populous parts of the state.

Building on those pickups - and in turn building a farm team for bigger races down the road - might be the most realistic strategy at this point, some argue.

"It's very clear that the Republican Party in Maryland is at a crossroads," said Andrew Langer, one of at least eight GOP activists who are considering running for chairman. "We need to take a cue from the tea party movement and build from the ground up. . . . We have to be focused on slowly moving the ball forward. It's going to require some patience."

Time for a clean break?

Debate on other aspects of the party's future - in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a 2-to-1 ratio - has been playing out in private conversations and public postings on Facebook and other social networking sites.

With Ehrlich out of the picture and no one else approaching his star power in the state party, activists are asking whether it's time to make a clean break and elect a chairman without strong ties to the former governor.

They are debating whether the party should try to grow its ranks by reaching out to moderate Democrats or stay true to its most conservative principles.

And some suggest that Maryland Republicans have no choice but to do a better job courting minority voters if the party ever plans to field a successful candidate for statewide office again.

"We must reach out to nontraditional constituencies, especially the black community, or we will always be a struggling minority party," _blankRon Miller, a Republican activist from Calvert County, wrote in a Facebook posting.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company