One year ago, Maryland's Republicans were a confident group. Ronald Reagan was in the White House and getting his way in Congress. The man they had hoped would run for governor in 1978 was poised to be their candidate in 1982. And Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes looked to be vulnerable.

"This could be the year for Maryland Republicans," said party chairman Allan C. Levey. "We think both Paul Sarbanes and Gov. Harry Hughes are very beatable."

One year later, Sarbanes and Hughes have been reelected by landslides. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, Robert A. Pascal, is in political exile on his Eastern Shore farm, and defeated Senate nominee Lawrence J. Hogan vows, after spending parts of three decades in elective office, to stay in the private sector.

"If you asked me today who our statewide candidates will be in 1986, I couldn't even begin to tell you," admits Levey, who himself lost a bid for a seat in the state Senate. "Right now, there isn't anyone. No one."

As the result of the latest debacle, "We are back to square one," admitted Levey.

A misty, rainy night in Annapolis. The Thomas Hunter Lowe House Office Building is dark and quiet, except for a third-floor conference room where 25 Republicans, most of them candidates in the 1982 elections, have gathered to discuss the future.

This was square one.

Unlike most political gatherings, there was no rhetoric, no railing against the opposition; just a realistic assessment of a tough situation.

"We've got a problem," said Phyllis Fordham, who lost her bid for a state Senate seat in Montgomery County, "and that is the perception that Maryland is a one-party state. We've got to start from there."

Most of the candidates had stories to tell of the difficulties associated with trying to get elected as a Republican in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3 to 1 in registration; by 9 to 1 in the state legislature and by numbers almost too large to count in eager, aggressive candidates--at all levels of government.

"I had one recurring experience when one of my coffees would go well," said Jeanne Cryor, a losing candidate for state delegate from Montgomery. "People would look at me and say, 'How can a nice person like you be a Republican?' "

There were nods all around the room. Most had had similar experiences. But it has not always been that way.

As recently as 1970, with only 28 percent of the registered voters in the state, Republicans held both U.S. Senate seats, four of the eight congressional seats, three county executive posts and almost 25 percent of the legislature. But the GOP fell hard in the 1974 "Watergate" election and has never recovered.

Now, with 23 percent of the registered voters, they hold one U.S. Senate seat, one House seat, no county executives and less than 15 percent of the legislature. Except for Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, Republicans have not won a statewide election since J. Glenn Beall Jr.'s victory over Sen. Joseph Tydings in 1970.

This was to be the year they began their comeback, but instead they fell even further back. Both their incumbent county executives ran for statewide office and were trounced: Pascal got 38 percent of the vote against Hughes and Hogan got 37 percent against Sarbanes. The Republicans gained two seats in the House of Delegates (going from 15 to 17 of 141) but lost a seat in the state Senate (dropping from seven to six of 47).

"It just wasn't in the cards this year," said Sen. Howard A. Denis, who survived in his reelection bid by 596 votes. "I think if Pascal and Hogan had done everything right they still would have lost. The situation with the national party made it very, very difficult."

The national party is a major factor in Maryland's election for several reasons. One is proximity: many federal workers live and vote in Maryland and are more interested in national issues than state issues. Also, the national party is more conservative than the moderate majority, typified by Levey, that controls the state party. The type of Republican candidate that has historically succeeded in Maryland -- Mathias, longtime congressman Gilbert Gude, Beall -- is not the kind the national party supports strongly.

"The biggest problem we have is that we're divided," said state Sen. Edward P. Thomas, the new minority leader. "Every time we get into a room somewhere we choose up sides and start throwing knives at each other. When the other guys outnumber you 3 to 1 you can't have that. The point of a political party is to win elections, not have moral victories or get ideologues nominated so they can lose the general election. We've got to realize that and realize it soon if we want to do anything in this state in the future."

Although the moderate wing of the party controls the party mechanism -- Levey was reelected chairman this year with 57 percent of the vote -- the conservatives often are effective in defeating moderates in primaries.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in this year's race for Montgomery County executive. Del. Luiz Simmons, a moderate, entered the race believing he had a chance to defeat Democratic incumbent Charles W. Gilchrist. But Simmons tripped on several conservative issues, including criticizing Reaganomics, and was beaten badly in the primary by conservative banker Joseph C. McGrath, who in turn was easily defeated by Gilchrist. Earlier this month Simmons abandoned the GOP for the Democrats.

"I wrote an article in 1975 in which I said that the Republican Party had an image problem that was also substantive," Simmons said. "It is viewed as being uncompassionate, a party that is anti-labor, anti-government worker and pro-big business. That problem is still there. When the Republicans recruit blacks or women they don't recruit people with different ideas, they recruit people who look different from them but sound the same. That's no way to expand the party."

Levey is extremely critical of Simmons for switching parties, but does not disagree with his former compatriot.

"The two most important new political powers in this state and nationally are blacks and women," Levey said. "I think it's fair to say that the national party has not shown much interest in either group up until now.

"We have to recruit blacks in Maryland. It is an absolute must. I think that has to be one of the party's top priorities during the next four years. We are not going to be a viable party statewide without getting the black vote. Look at what happened this year. Blacks were against us by more than 10 to 1. That has to be changed."

Yet none of the candidates at the Annapolis meeting was black.

There are Republican "pockets of hope" around the state. One is Baltimore County, which Pascal lost by only 3,000 votes. Another is the Allegany/Garrett counties election district, tucked in the western corner of the state. It is the only one of the 47 senatorial districts with a Republican majority among registered voters.

The senator-elect from the district is John Bambacus, a 36-year-old college professor, who defeated the Senate minority leader, Edward J. Mason, in the primary with a labor-backed, moderate, Mathias-like campaign.

Bambacus, a Mathias protege who worked in the senator's 1980 reelection campaign, thinks, like Simmons, that the party's approach has been too narrow.

"The party has got to open its doors and broaden its base in an aggressive manner," he said. "We can't afford ideological rigidity if we're going to keep this from being a one-party state. The fact that Ronald Reagan didn't carry Maryland in the middle of a landslide should send a message to people."

Another young Republican, Tyson Bennett, a 35-year-old Anne Arundel County lawyer who lost a close race for the state Senate this year, thinks that building the party from the ground up is crucial.

"The state party did a good job trying to help in the legislative races this year," he said. "But there are very few areas of the state where we are organized at the local level. That means most candidates, like me, have personal organizations. That means there's no continuity from one campaign year to the next. We need to build that now."

Levey is trying hard to do that. He is organizing meetings of candidates and potential candidates, trying to open more local Republican offices (one opened in Calvert County last week) and recruiting precinct chairmen and workers for the next election.

But Denis, one of Levey's boosters, thinks that grass-roots organization can only do so much. "In reality, you don't build a party from the ground up, you build it from the top down," he said. "You need to get statewide candidates and county executives elected so they can appoint people to jobs from within the party."

While Republicans are searching for candidates, the Democrats have them lined up three-deep. In 1986, if Mathias (who will be 66) seeks a fourth term, he is likely to face a formidable foe, such as Gov. Hughes, or Congressmen Steny H. Hoyer or Michael Barnes.

And two big-name Democrats, House of Delegates Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, and Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, already are jockeying for the gubernatorial nomination.

"The Republicans are very weak and very disorganized right now," said Cardin. "They have got a lot of work to do if they are going to be a factor in any way four years from now."

"It will probably take a civil war within the Democratic Party to get a Republican elected governor," said Sachs.

And if Mathias retires, there will be a huge void to fill. Many Republicans think the only kind of candidate who can win is a wealthy businessman a la New York's Lou Lehrmann. The other possibility is ex-Iranian hostage L. Bruce Laingen who considered running for the Senate this year and might be persuaded to run four years from now. Heroes tend to transcend party politics, at least to a degree.

Perhaps Bennett, looking back at last month's election results, summed up the situation best: "Even though we didn't do well, it wasn't disastrous because we're so low to begin with. I guess we should be grateful we weren't wiped out completely."