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  •   In Md., a Rising GOP

    By Charles Babington and Daniel LeDuc
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, January 7, 1998; Page A01

    As Maryland enters a critical election year in which virtually every statewide office is up for grabs, a resurgent Republican Party appears poised to become a potent opposition party for the first time in a generation.

    In a state that Democrats once ruled with genteel confidence, the GOP has made significant inroads during the last two decades, gaining registered voters and elective offices at a steady pace. Now party leaders hope to take advantage of what they see as the vulnerability of Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening to elect the first Republican governor in 32 years, as well as strengthen the GOP presence in the state legislature.

    Maryland's thriving economy and its still-strong Democratic tradition may make such thoughts more dream than reality. After all, registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 2 to 1, and they control both houses of the General Assembly by healthy margins. Moreover, the state Republican Party faces internal ideological divisions that will complicate its efforts to attract the middle-of-the-road voters who decide many state elections.

    But there is little doubt that the GOP has evolved from a political afterthought to a contender. Once complacent about their hold on power, leading Democrats have begun taking their rivals more seriously, stepping up their fund-raising and, whenever possible, co-opting potential GOP issues such as tax cuts.

    Accelerating the GOP's rise in Maryland have been national trends – especially continued expansion of suburbs – that have left young voters more attuned to the GOP's message of lower taxes and less government. That theme, which Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey used to nearly defeat Glendening in the 1994 gubernatorial race, also resonates with disaffected Democrats.

    "It became silly for me to pretend in any way, shape or form that I was a Democrat," said D. Craig Horn, a Howard County business executive who switched to the Republican Party last year after deciding that Democratic policies run counter to personal responsibility. "The shoes just didn't feel comfortable anymore."

    Horn is just one of many new Republicans in Maryland; since 1980, they have caused the GOP registration to grow at a rate of 70 percent while Democratic registration grew at only 12 percent. The GOP's membership has increased from 24 to 56 of the General Assembly's 188 seats in the last decade. And Republicans have wrested control of 14 of the 23 county governments, making gains in booming areas such as Howard County and Southern Maryland.

    Most astonishing of those new gains was Sauerbrey's ability to come within 6,000 votes of Glendening four years ago – in a state that has not elected a Republican governor since Spiro T. Agnew won in 1966. Although Sauerbrey clearly was propelled by a nationwide Republican wind in 1994, when the GOP seized control of Congress, even Democrats said her success signaled the beginning of the end of their party's traditional dominance.

    Sauerbrey is considered the front-runner for the GOP nomination again this year and will continue to emphasize the touchstone issues that have resonated with those new GOP voters, said her spokeswoman, Carol Hirschburg. She said Sauerbrey would continue to hit Glendening on the high cost of government, high taxes, the need for more efficient school spending and the need to fight crime more effectively.

    "Last time, she talked about a big tax cut," said Tim Hans, a conservative GOP voter in Howard County and a Sauerbrey fan. "That is something near and dear to a lot of us, and she needs to talk about it early and often."

    Although such talk may appeal to the GOP's most conservative wing, analysts in both parties see the issues as having less impact this year. They note that the economy is strong and crime is down – always signs of strength for incumbents. Even some Republicans fear Sauerbrey may have lost the edge she had four years ago, and some are considering the other declared Republican candidate, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

    "I think the Republicans are stuck out there without an issue this year," said Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Howard).

    In the long term, moreover, some political observers predict that geography, history and culture will make it difficult for the state's Republicans to mimic the rise to power of their counterparts in several southern and northeastern states.

    Their biggest dilemma is geography. Maryland, the archetypal border state, is neither North nor South in its legacy, self-image or politics.

    Not truly southern in orientation, Maryland lacks the conservative and racial dynamics that have fueled the party's rapid growth in Virginia, the Carolinas and the deep South. It also is not quite the hotbed of Rockefeller Republicanism that has flourished in the moderate northeastern states of Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.

    "The Maryland Republicans haven't worked out the formula," said Emory University political scientist Merle Black.

    For years, the formula was fairly straightforward. The Democratic machine, fueled by a big vote out of Baltimore, dominated state politics. But liberal-to-moderate Republicans found they could win statewide elections, particularly when Democrats were splintered. The last two Republican governors, Agnew and Theodore McKeldin, were considered moderates, and as recently as the 1970s, the party held both U.S. Senate seats from Maryland: Charles McC. Mathias Jr., who retired in 1986, and J. Glenn Beall, who was ousted by Paul S. Sarbanes in 1976.

    But such success did not last, political scientists say, because the most reliable Republican voters were becoming increasingly conservative in a comparatively liberal state. Mathias, a popular moderate-to-liberal Republican, probably could not get nominated by today's Maryland GOP, analysts said.

    "Like Republicans everywhere, they have a declining moderate wing and a growing conservative wing," said R. Harrison Hickman, a pollster who has worked for Democrats in Maryland and other states. "In the Maryland general election, there are not enough conservative Democrats to put together a coalition for a [staunchly conservative] Republican. So they are boxed both ways."

    But Sauerbrey's strong showing in 1994 suggests that at least four years ago, a lot of voters found some appeal in such a conservative candidate. She is an advocate of deep tax cuts and opposes abortion and gun control – and she upset the moderate front-runner in the 1994 primary, Helen D. Bentley.

    Republicans of all stripes credit Sauerbrey with fueling much of the party's momentum, beginning with her tenure in the House of Delegates in 1979.

    Unlike many of her predecessors as minority leader in the House, Sauerbrey chose to confront the Democratic leadership rather than to cooperate. That strategy gave her little voice in decision-making, but the party carved out a more distinct, partisan message that focused largely on pocketbook issues such as taxes.

    "Ellen Sauerbrey marked the arrival of a Republican opposition party in the legislature," said Alan Rosenthal, of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, who has studied the Maryland legislature for 30 years.

    Sauerbrey's rise to prominence coincided with other demographic shifts that have boosted Republicans in Maryland and other states. As traditionally Democratic Baltimore lost population, suburban counties such as Howard and Anne Arundel were flourishing. Many of their residents were young families buying homes, raising children and, in the process, becoming drawn to a conservative Republican message.

    This is a big year in Maryland politics. Voters will select a governor, comptroller, attorney general, U.S. senator, eight U.S. House members, all 188 General Assembly members and many county and municipal officials. But the GOP is working especially hard in the gubernatorial race, in part because it senses that Glendening may be vulnerable and because a Sauerbrey victory would dramatically accelerate the party's momentum.

    Not only would the party's fund-raising become easier as its credibility grew, but the next governor will control the redistricting of the General Assembly that follows each decade's census. Sauerbrey would be sure to reconfigure more districts in ways that would help Republican candidates.

    "The Democrats should be worried," said Emily Smith, who managed Glendening's 1994 campaign. "It's evening out. New voters are coming in . . . who are Republicans."

    But Maryland Republicans face obstacles, not the least of which is the reliably Democratic 25 percent of the population that is African American, a figure comparable to those in deep South states. That's a particular problem for the GOP, since Maryland also lacks the racial dynamics that have driven huge numbers of southern whites to the Republican fold in the last 25 years.

    "In terms of racial polarization, the deep South whites are probably the most conservative in the country," said Black, the Emory University political scientist. "The Maryland whites are not comparable to the deep South whites."

    Republicans must score big margins among white voters to win elections in states with significant black populations. That's difficult in Maryland, where whites are more pro-government because of their proximity to Washington and where there's a large cache of federal workers.

    Recent voting patterns underscore the Maryland GOP's dilemma. According to 1996 exit polls, Democrat Bill Clinton received 29 percent of the white vote in Alabama and Georgia, 34 percent in North Carolina, 39 percent in Virginia and 43 percent in Maryland. Clinton carried 93 percent of Maryland's black voters, which, combined with the white vote, made Maryland one of his best states.

    Another problem for the Republicans, even their own activists acknowledge, is that they still have trouble recruiting good candidates for many races.

    Pollster and consultant Carol Arscott, a former Howard County GOP chairman, predicts a "status quo" election in the General Assembly this year, partly because her party has yet to find strong challengers for several vulnerable Democrats.

    The GOP's most glaring failure is at the U.S. Senate level. Veteran Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Sarbanes – two of the Senate's most liberal members – have never been seriously pressed by a Republican challenger.

    Mikulski is seeking a third six-year term this fall, and no credible Republican has emerged as even a token opponent. Some Republicans want it to stay that way, fearing that the popular Mikulski would respond to a true challenge by campaigning so vigorously she might pull Glendening and other Democrats to victory behind her.

    Staff writer Scott Wilson, Metro researchers Bridget Roeber and Sharon Fanning and Post polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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