In between panels about how to reduce gun-control restrictions and limit access to abortion, dozens of the party faithful exchanged business cards, snapped selfies and commiserated over being conservative in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 and have a veto-proof majority in both chambers of the legislature.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate in his party who has frequently criticized Trump, was not present at the conference hosted by the conservative website Red Maryland. Hogan’s spokesman said the governor was invited but could not attend “because of his schedule.”
Rep. Andy Harris, the only Republican in Maryland’s congressional delegation, was the informal keynote speaker. He took to the stage midafternoon Saturday, regaling the audience with stories from the House floor.
“The Democrats in Washington are unhinged,” said Harris, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a conservative bloc closely allied with Trump.
“Ilhan Omar,” he continued, referring to the first-term Democratic representative from Minnesota. “To hear her on the floor, criticizing killing a terrorist is — is something else. I won’t go there,” he added, as audience members laughed.
Omar, a Muslim who is the first member of Congress to wear a hijab, is among a large number of Democratic lawmakers who have criticized the Trump administration’s killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani as a tactical mistake.
In his 30-minute speech, Harris, whose district mostly covers Maryland’s Eastern Shore, slammed local Democratic officials in other parts of the state and in the District, mocking their policies on criminal justice, immigration and education.
“D.C. is run by communists,” he said. Baltimore City’s leaders have been an “abject failure” in addressing the jurisdiction’s high crime rates. And Montgomery County’s sanctuary policies to protect immigrant communities are “unbelievable.”
During other sessions, speakers discussed ways they could strengthen the party’s ranks. Although Hogan is popular among voters from all parties (a recent poll by Gonzales Research & Media Services, found the governor had a 75 percent approval rating), the Maryland GOP has seen losses in local and state legislative races, driven in part by anti-Trump backlash among moderates and independents.
Brian Griffiths, Red Maryland’s editor in chief, said he understands that Maryland will not vote for Trump in the upcoming presidential election. He and other conservative leaders are focused on races further down the ballot.
“Maryland needs us,” said state Sen. Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll), who recently returned to Annapolis for the state’s 90-day legislative session, where more-liberal presiding officers have newly taken charge.
“These progressives in the General Assembly . . . their agenda is ramming through wasteful, unaccountable spending over the Kirwan Commission,” Ready said, referring to the $4 billion education funding proposal that conservatives have criticized for being too costly. “They want more spending on top of the spending we already do.”
While Ready described Maryland in an interview as “still a very, very blue state,” others at the conference saw it differently.
“Trump is very popular here,” said Linda Flint, president of the Harford County Republican Women, adding that she does not believe the president’s 37 percent approval rating in the Gonzales poll. “Everywhere I go, people are very receptive to supporting Trump.”
In an earlier session titled “Growth Through Diversity,” a panel of four black speakers discussed questions posed by a moderator, including “How to expel racism in [the Republican] party?” and “How to convince minorities, especially Hispanics, that we’re not racist?”
At the end of the panel, the speakers also shared their thoughts on Trump.
“Do we agree with everything he says? Everything he tweets? Maybe not,” C.J. Sailor, director of programs at the Gloucester Institute, said to the audience, which was largely white. “But think about what will it be like to have President Biden. Imagine a President Warren.”
The attendees and other speakers groaned in consensus.