Correction to This Article
The article misstated the year in which Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr. was elected to represent the state's 1st Congressional District. He was elected in 2008, not 2006.

With Ehrlich Decision in Play, Md. GOP Faces Election Doubts

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

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.

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