Maryland Republicans had a lot to celebrate on Nov. 5. Not only did Bob Ehrlich become the state's first GOP governor in 36 years, but the party also made substantial gains in the legislature and in county governments across the state.

But not one of those new Republican officials is from Montgomery County. Quite the contrary: Montgomery now has just one Republican on its nine-member County Council, only one Republican in its 24-member House delegation and no Republicans among its eight state senators.

It wasn't always this way. From 1994 through 1998, three of Montgomery's eight state senators were Republicans, the county had eight Republicans in its House delegation, and there were two GOP members on the County Council.

During the past 10 or 15 years, most Maryland jurisdictions have either built or begun moving toward competitive two-party systems. That's healthy. But Montgomery County is marching resolutely in the opposite direction. Montgomery is the richest jurisdiction in Maryland, but politically its voters are more closely aligned with urbanized Prince George's County and Baltimore City -- neither of which has any locally elected Republicans -- than with the affluent suburbs on its northern and eastern borders.

While Montgomery continues to rank first statewide in personal income, owing mainly to its large federal workforce, its public school system reflects the county's changing demographics. Whites make up less than 50 percent of public school students, with Hispanics the fastest-growing segment of the minorities who dominate the student population. School board member Steve Abrams, who is also the newly elected chairman of the county's Republican Party, says that countywide demographic changes lag the school system's by about 10 years. This means that white residents could constitute a minority of Montgomery County's population by the next census in 2010.

To make a difficult situation worse for the GOP, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1 in Montgomery, the same ratio that Republicans face statewide. But this ratio doesn't account for the 19 percent of voters who are independents. And independents are closing in on Republicans, who make up just 27 percent of the electorate. Meanwhile, the Democrats can claim the allegiance of 54 percent of the county's registered voters, higher than the party's 47 percent share in Howard County and its 37 percent share in Frederick County.

Thus, it's no mystery why Chris Van Hollen's plea for party loyalty, and his party's simple message -- "Vote for the Democrats" -- got him elected to Congress. Van Hollen transformed a woman who had been on a first-name basis with the voters from "Connie" to "a Republican."

With little difference between Connie Morella and Van Hollen on the issues, Montgomery County's Democrats had no reason not to vote their party.

This is an important lesson for future GOP candidates in Montgomery County: When battling such daunting odds, they must give voters a reason to choose them, because their party affiliation is a built-in disadvantage. With the voter-registration deficit unlikely to improve dramatically before the next local election cycle, Republicans must develop a superior message to take to voters.

Support for this idea can be found in the winning campaigns of the two remaining GOP officeholders in Montgomery County. Both spotlighted the issues that set them apart from their opponents rather than trying to blur the differences between them.

County Council member Howard Denis ran ahead of Morella in District 1 with a campaign that stressed his support for the intercounty connector and his opposition to the Inner Purple Line.

District 15 state Del. Jean Cryor showcased a can-do attitude by highlighting the advantages afforded to a person who actually holds an office. She was able to stress her membership on special state commissions on education and revenue reform and her work to protect Montgomery's interests in Annapolis. This was a real asset, because she was the only incumbent delegate in the race.

These two Republican elected officials could do the local party a service by mentoring prospective candidates for the 2006 election. I nominate Denis and Cryor to serve as headmasters of the Montgomery County Republican Party's Campaign School.