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

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.

Miller, who is black, said the party should pay particular attention to Prince George's County, writing that "we mustn't be afraid to spend money to establish a beachhead . . . where the return on our investment isn't going to be realized in one or two election cycles. . . . We will not be competitive in the marketplace of ideas in the black community unless we are persistent, patient and attuned to their needs, yet within the boundaries of what it means to be a Republican."

African Americans account for a larger percentage of the population in Maryland than in any state outside the Deep South. Blacks broke overwhelmingly for O'Malley and other statewide Democrats this month, including 88 percent to 11 percent for the governor in Prince George's.

Weakness statewide

Three weeks after the fact, the extent of Ehrlich's loss remains breathtaking.

_blankUnofficial returns show O'Malley winning statewide by 14.4 percentage points - a margin that has grown since election night as absentee and provisional ballots have been counted. It's more than twice the margin by which O'Malley beat Ehrlich in 2006, which was a far better year nationally for Democrats.

O'Malley's victory this year was aided by lopsided vote totals in the heavily Democratic Washington suburbs. But updated results _blankshow O'Malley even nudging out Ehrlich in Baltimore County, a jurisdiction home to many blue-collar Democrats who helped propel Ehrlich to victory in 2002.

GOP candidates for other statewide offices fared even worse: Republicans lost a U.S. Senate race by more than 26 percentage points and the race for state comptroller by more than 22 percentage points. Since Ehrlich's win in 2002, he's been the only candidate to come within 10 percentage points of winning statewide office in Maryland.

In the Maryland Senate this year, Democrats gained two seats. Republicans did manage to pick up six seats in the House of Delegates, but that merely returned their caucus to the size it was when Ehrlich was governor.

Strength at county level

GOP activists say the untold story of the election was how well their candidates fared in local races around Maryland, even as they suffered major defeats statewide.

Republicans picked up more than 20 seats on county councils and boards of commissioners, according to a tally kept by the state GOP. The party made gains in Baltimore and Frederick counties and in a half-dozen smaller counties outside Maryland's central population core.

Once new members are seated, Republicans will control 15 of 24 county government panels in Maryland - a development that _blankpolitical blogger Richard Cross recently described as Maryland's "red underbelly."

"If you're going to rebuild from the ground up, which is what we have to do, we will have a farm team," said Larry Hogan, a former Ehrlich Cabinet secretary who explored running for governor last year before ceding the GOP primary to Ehrlich.

Hogan, who has not ruled out running for governor in 2014, said he "wouldn't want to write off the possibility of us competing on a statewide basis" - but said that is not where the party's focus should be. "What we need now is to reinvent the party," he said.

Picking a chairman

That task largely will fall to whomever is chosen as chairman on Dec. 11 at a gathering of the Maryland Republican Party Central Committee.

The winner will take over the party reins from Audrey E. Scott, another former Ehrlich Cabinet secretary, who received generally high marks from activists for restoring the party to fiscal health during the one year she served.

The front-runner appears to be Mary D. Kane, Ehrlich's running mate this year and a former Maryland secretary of state. Her husband, John, served as state GOP party chairman when Ehrlich was governor.

But Kane has drawn plenty of potential competitors who argue that she is aligned too closely to Ehrlich at a time when the party needs to make a clean break.

The crop of candidates has some fresh faces, including Mike Esteve, chairman of the Maryland College Republicans, and Sam Hale, founder of the conservative group the _blankMaryland Society of Patriots.

Besides Kane, two other unsuccessful candidates for statewide office have offered their services: Eric Wargotz, who ran for U.S. Senate, and William Campbell, who ran for comptroller.

Don Murphy, a GOP consultant and former state delegate, said some of the contenders remind him of "old high school football stars who are living in the past."

Whoever prevails will have a stark challenge ahead, Hogan said. "This election proved the same ol', same ol' doesn't work for Maryland Republicans."

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