As the Maryland Republican Party gathers for its annual convention today, it will be forced to confront an unexpected challenge: how to cope with success.
For a half-century, the GOP in Maryland has been a political party synonymous with failure. Dogged by a lack of money and weak grass-roots support, Republicans have struggled to find enough candidates to fill their statewide ballot, let alone actually win. Save for a couple of fluke victories a generation ago, the party has had almost no influence on state government.
That all changed Nov. 5 with the election of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as governor, the first time Republicans have captured that office in 36 years. Suddenly, the GOP is facing a bright future and surprisingly pleasant decisions that seemed unimaginable just a year ago.
For instance, Ehrlich recently turned down an offer from his campaign finance chairman, Richard E. Hug, to hold a $2 million benefit for the governor-elect next month, an event that would have ranked as the biggest one-day fundraiser in Maryland history. The reason? Ehrlich was worried that his hobnobbing with wealthy donors might overshadow his inauguration. (They'll do that hobnobbing when the legislative session ends in April, instead.)
Compare that embarrassment of riches to eight years ago, when Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey relied on public financing during her first campaign for governor.
Sauerbrey recalled a time in the late 1980s when she suggested to her small band of GOP colleagues in the General Assembly that they raise the ticket price for their annual fundraiser from $25 to $100. "Everybody went into cardiac arrest," she said. "They wondered if anybody would come."
Despite Ehrlich's victory, the GOP still faces a challenge to turn Maryland into a consistently competitive two-party state. Democrats still outnumber Republicans 2-1 in voter registration. They also picked up two congressional seats last month and hold a vetoproof majority in the Senate and House of Delegates.
While nobody is predicting that Republicans will dominate state politics anytime soon, party members are betting that Ehrlich's success will enable them to convert thousands of voters, develop candidates and energize a moribund field operation.
"The first thing we're going to do is celebrate our victory and the end of 36 years of a drought of leadership," said John Kane, a Potomac businessman whom Ehrlich has tapped as the new party chairman. "But we've also got to work on convincing more folks that you don't have to be a Democrat to be taken seriously in this state."
The party is already trying to reinvigorate its leadership with new faces. It is looking for a new executive director to replace Paul Ellington, who is expected to take a job in the Ehrlich administration, as well as a new finance chairman.
It has also appointed several new party officials at the county level and plans to use its newfound wealth to hire its first communications director.
At the same time, the party's old guard is stepping aside. Sauerbrey said this week that she will resign her position as a national Republican committeewoman to take a diplomatic post in the Bush administration.
James G. Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, said new party officials and more money will help, but that the biggest factor in determining the GOP's fortunes will be how Ehrlich performs as governor.
"One of the best things Bob Ehrlich can do for the Republican Party in Maryland is just to do a good job, to be a good governor," Gimpel said. "If Ehrlich can solidify his gains that way, he'll really have accomplished something, because the conventional wisdom is that this is just a blip on the radar screen."
Already, however, Republicans have exceeded even their own expectations. Michael S. Steele, the lieutenant governor-elect and until recently the GOP chairman, drafted a 10-year strategic plan for the party last year that was approved by the Republican leadership. Their official goal for the 2002 elections: Gain five House seats and three Senate seats but wait until 2006 to mount a serious challenge for governor.
"The irony is that we weren't even trying to win the governor's race back then, but just pick up seats in the Senate and House of Delegates," Steele said.
"But all of a sudden, the governorship came into play for us."
The GOP did meet its goal in legislative races, picking up nine more seats in the General Assembly. In fact, the mood is so good in Republican circles these days that some party regulars are warning against overconfidence.
"It's a time to celebrate, but it's also a time to realize that our work just began on Nov. 5," said Joyce Lyons Terhes, a former state party chairman.
One major challenge for Republicans will be to guard against infighting. During its decades on the sidelines, the Maryland GOP was led by conservatives who emphasized ideological purity over pragmatism.
Ehrlich bucked this approach by running as a self-proclaimed moderate and appealing to crossover Democrats, while admittedly taking his base for granted. The strategy worked, as conservatives rallied behind him. But it is uncertain how long party discipline will hold.
There are clear signs that Ehrlich will continue to nudge the party toward the middle. In naming Kane as chairman, he picked a Republican from liberal-leaning Montgomery County who, like the governor-elect, supports abortion rights in many cases.
So far, it appears that conservatives are still too intoxicated with victory to complain. "Ehrlich won -- it's his party," said Kevin Igoe, a College Park political consultant and former GOP executive director in Maryland.
Republicans have already demonstrated their mastery of one vital skill: raising money.
In the governor's race, Ehrlich collected a record $10.6 million, overcoming a huge initial advantage amassed by his opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D).
Hug, the finance chairman, said the money should flow even more freely for Ehrlich and other Republicans now that they have actually won a major contest.
"It's going to make it so much easier," Hug said. "It used to be that if anybody got onto a list for giving to a Republican, they would be shamed by the [Democratic] governor. Now, people can come out of the closet."