Md. Republicans Gird for Success
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 1998; Page B01
With many GOP activists saying the future of their party rests on their success or failure in this year's governor's race, Maryland's Republicans yesterday concluded a two-day statewide meeting meant to invigorate their stalwarts while outlining an aggressive get-out-the vote effort.
Most of the 200 party leaders and activists appeared united behind the front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who was the party's 1994 nominee. Sauerbrey has a primary opponent but has spent the last four years building a statewide, grass-roots organization.
The Republicans expressed delight with low poll ratings of Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), chortled over their continuing advances in registering voters for the GOP and said they were poised to take over the state's top office for the first time in three decades.
"Republicans across the state are really active," said Carroll County committee Chairman Thomas Bowen as yesterday's session concluded at the Sheraton Hotel at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "I've never seen the height of enthusiasm we've seen here today. People are really thinking this is our year."
It is far from certain that the GOP will make the inroads it hopes for this year. Maryland remains an overwhelmingly Democratic state that has not elected a Republican governor since Spiro T. Agnew won in 1966. Registered Democrats still dominate by a 2-to-1 ratio, and despite Glendening's low ratings, he retains all the powers of incumbency, enjoys a booming economy and is a tough, dogged campaigner.
Yet Maryland's GOP has made impressive gains in the last decade. Since 1980, Republican registrations have grown at a rate of 70 percent, compared with the Democrats' 12 percent. Whether they can continue that success rests in large part on what happens during the governor's race, several party leaders said. A GOP victory, they said, could exponentially propel their party's future while a loss could cool things dramatically.
"This is a make or break year for our party," said Prince George's County Chairman Michael Steele. And his Garrett County counterpart, John Sines, agreed: "If it doesn't happen this year, it's not going to happen."
With Glendening and Sauerbrey leading the races for their respective parties' nominations, this year's governor's race likely will be a rematch of their 1994 contest, which Sauerbrey lost by fewer than 6,000 votes.
Sauerbrey contended that irregularities at polling places in Baltimore stole the election from her, allegations dismissed in the courts. Still, the GOP smarts from the loss, with many at the convention still convinced Sauerbrey should have won.
"This year we have to really win the governorship," said Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, the magazine publisher and potential 2000 presidential candidate, who was the convention's keynote speaker. "We won it last time, but you know what happened. Even the people fooling with ballots have to realize this is a Republican year."
To help make it so, the state party is embarking on a Victory '98 get-out-the-vote operation that is more ambitious than any it has ever tried in Maryland. Budgeted at $350,000, the plan uses statewide voting lists, analyzed by the Republican National Committee, to target potential GOP voters county by county. It includes direct-mail appeals, phone banks and an aggressive absentee ballot initiative.
About $58,000 of the money will be spent in Montgomery County, which party leaders have declared a key battleground in the gubernatorial race. Another $25,000 will be spent in Prince George's.
Peter Carroll, the state party's new finance chairman, said he would be going door-to-door to businesses and other organizations to raise funds and already has found many small-business owners willing to ante up because they feel overtaxed and ready for change.
"We're committed to being an aggressive player in the election," said Steele, who is on Sauerbrey's short list of possible lieutenant governor candidates.
"We're going to have people vote this time that have never voted before or who haven't voted in a long time," said Butch Kolich, secretary of the Calvert County GOP committee.
Four years ago at this time, then-U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley was the front-runner for the GOP nomination. But Sauerbrey, then the state House minority leader, was the surprise winner of the Republican primary, and since her loss to Glendening she has spent virtually all her time running again.
This year, she faces a primary challenge from Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, though he trails her badly in the polls. Sauerbrey's strong position, coupled with the fact that Glendening has challengers in the Democratic primary, gives the GOP an edge this year, several Republicans said during the convention.
That, in turn, has translated into new excitement among party stalwarts and newcomers alike. "Years ago, people were closet Republicans. Now, it's okay to come out of the closet," said Ronald Alessi, Wicomico County GOP chairman.
The stakes are high. The next governor will preside over legislative redistricting following the 2000 Census. The party's growth could jump dramatically if the GOP makes new strides in that process.
"It is the most important redistricting in 20 years," said Baltimore County Chairman Christopher West. "If the Democrats pull out a victory, it would be very discouraging. The head of steam we've built up -- a lot of the steam -- will dissipate."
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