On the first Thursday of each month, Montgomery County Republican activists gather at Savannah’s, a Kensington sports bar, to talk politics over pizza and pitchers of beer.
But last week’s get-together was no typical “First Thursday.” It was two days after Republican Larry Hogan upended Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the heavily-favored Democrat, to become Maryland’s governor-elect.
“What can I say?” a beaming Michael Higgs — the party chairman — asked the cheering group of about 20 or so stalwarts, mostly young-to-middle-aged white men.
But beyond hailing Hogan, there wasn’t much to say.
The red tide that swept Maryland on Election Day largely skipped Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Turnout was tepid in both counties as well as in Baltimore, which along with Charles County were the only jurisdictions that favored Brown over Hogan.
While Republicans elsewhere in the state are luxuriating in victory margins for Hogan of 200, 300, even 400 percent, GOP leaders in the D.C. suburbs can only celebrate symbolic victories: 11 Prince George’s precincts won by Hogan, solid but unsuccessful efforts by two Montgomery statehouse hopefuls and a close but ultimately losing campaign by Republican Dan Bongino to unseat U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D).
Both county parties are trying to figure out how to leverage Hogan’s statewide success into local gains at the polls. But history, demographics, years of Democratic gerrymandering and a shallow pool of viable candidates make it a heavy lift.
“This is the Goliath of the Democratic Party,” said Mykel Harris, former chairman of the Prince George’s Republican Central Committee, referring to both counties. For Republicans, “to make any gains here is substantial. It’s significant.”
The last Prince George’s Republican to win a county executive’s race was Hogan’s father, Lawrence Hogan, in 1978. That was the year James Gleason, Montgomery’s first and only GOP executive, finished the second of his two terms.
In county council and state legislative races, a Republican occasionally breaks through. But all 18 council members and 63 legislators in office in Montgomery and Prince George’s are Democrats — and last week’s election did nothing to change that.
To break the Democratic lock, the GOP would need to make unprecedented inroads into racial and ethnic groups, where the party has traditionally been a tough sell.
Prince George’s is 65 percent African American. Montgomery is a majority-minority county, according to the 2010 census, with just over 51 percent of the population African American, Hispanic or Asian.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1 in Montgomery and 10-to-1 in Prince George’s.
But party activists say disaffected Democrats and independents in both counties are open to the governor-elect’s message of a less-intrusive government, job creation and low taxes — if the party can develop the resources and recruit the personnel to deliver that message effectively.
“While out door-knocking, I learned there are a lot of folks disillusioned with their party,” said Republican Phil Parenti, who finished several hundred votes behind Democrat Michael Jackson in a House of Delegates race that spanned Prince George’s and Calvert counties. Republicans “need to get out there and show we are not the Boogeyman.”
In Prince George’s, revived political clubs in the county’s north and south built precinct organizations around their few members in the past two or three years so they could more easily reach voters. Party members put together a canvassing database, produced their own literature and have raised money to hold more events.
They were rewarded when 11 precincts (out of the county’s 285) went for Hogan. All 11 precincts are along the county’s border with Howard, Anne Arundel or Calvert counties, which Hogan won handily.
“We know one-party rule is no good,” said Tom Slezak of the Northern Prince George’s County Republican Club. “We believe in our message and are building this brick by brick.”
One window of opportunity for Montgomery Republicans is the new campaign-finance law that provides matching public funds for council and county executive candidates who raise the required small individual donations. With 123,000 registered Republican voters in the county, there is the potential for a few well-funded campaigns.
Party activists said focusing resources on compact state legislative districts makes more sense than vying for council seats, where the territories are larger and more expensive to cover.
Montgomery’s three-seat 16th District, which includes Bethesda, is one of the party’s more promising targets because independents and Republicans comprise a little more than 40 percent of registered voters.
First-time candidate Rose Li, a Republican, finished a distant fourth among six hopefuls, behind the three Democrats. But Li said she “met a lot of Democrats” who seemed receptive to her message that county lawmakers are in thrall to party leaders in Annapolis and fail to get the county’s fair share of state funding. Li said that with more time, and more doors knocked, she might have won.
Republican candidates must be more diligent about tracking and reaching out to voters between cycles, party officials said, and stay active in community affairs so their names are well-known when the next campaign begins. Li, a scientific research consultant to federal agencies, has joined the Montgomery and Bethesda-Chevy Chase chambers of commerce as a way to remain engaged.
GOP leaders in both counties agree that they need to devote much more time to recruiting and developing candidates. More than a third of the council and state legislative races in the two counties had no Republican candidates this year. And some races featured candidates who were outside the Republican mainstream, had little funding or experience, or were not carefully vetted.
Montgomery Republicans distanced themselves from Jim Kirkland, the GOP candidate in the District 1 council race, after learning that he had written an e-mail with anti-Semitic slurs.
“We need to start recruiting our 2016 candidates now,” said Higgs.