OCEAN CITY — The Republican Party in this mostly blue state wants more than a Republican in the governor’s mansion.
Party leaders who gathered here Saturday for their semiannual convention say they are trying to harness momentum from Larry Hogan’s underdog victory in hopes of winning other statewide races, growing the number of Republicans in the General Assembly — and reelecting Hogan in 2018.
In the months since the November election, the state party hired its first financial director to maximize fundraising and has focused on recruiting and training Republicans to run for local offices in hopes that they will one day run statewide, said Diana D. Waterman, the party’s chairwoman.
She said the party will soon launch voter registration initiatives to increase the number of registered Republicans in Maryland, especially in the three counties where Democrats hold only a slight edge and Hogan won by huge margins: Dorchester, Kent and Somerset.
“With a concerted effort, we can flip it,” Waterman said. “Target that and flip it.”
A first test for the party will come in 2016, when longtime U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) plans to retire, unexpectedly opening the Senate seat she has held since the 1980s.
Although statewide races are “still tough for us,” Waterman said, she expects Republican candidates to step forward for the Senate seat this summer — and potentially to compete for any congressional seats vacated by Democratic lawmakers who also run to succeed Mikulski.
And in 2018, there will be another governor’s race.
“2016 is important, but all roads lead to 2018 for us,” Waterman said. “The governor is very, very interested in growing the party, helping us to be successful, because he needs a strong Republican Party to help him win reelection.”
Hogan says he has yet to take an active role in party politics since taking office in late January. On Saturday, he offered a rallying speech that started with this question: “It’s a great time to be a Maryland Republican, isn’t it?”
The party has adopted the slogan “We’re back!” and the convention program featured a drawing of an elephant crushing a donkey with bulging eyes and its tongue extended.
Hogan directly connected the resurgence of the party to his candidacy, starting four years ago when he founded “Change Maryland,” a grass-roots organization that advocated for lower taxes and more transparency from the Democrats in charge.
His election, Hogan argued, was part of a statewide movement — not a fluke or a result of low Democratic turnout. He said there are more Republicans elected to local offices than Democrats statewide, and he pointed out that the party also picked up several seats in the Maryland General Assembly in November, although Democrats still hold strong majorities in both chambers.
“They said the Maryland Republican Party was dead. They said we would never elect another Republican statewide. They thought we were extinct,” Hogan said. “Well, they were wrong! We’re better. We’re stronger. And we’re more unified than we have ever been in the history of our state.”
The governor took credit for having “changed the focus” in Annapolis during the three-month legislative session that concluded on Monday by slowing budget growth, shrinking a structural deficit and pushing through a small amount of tax relief.
“We’re going to continue the efforts that we’ve been doing over the past four years or so,” Hogan said in an interview. “We’re headed in the right direction. . . . We’ve never been this strong.”
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris — Maryland’s lone Republican in Congress — also spoke, urging Republicans to offer “fresh, new ideas” that can gain traction in minority communities, such as pushing for parents having more choice in their children’s schools and revamping health-care options for veterans.
In the afternoon, there were workshops on connecting with millennial voters who are often moderate on social issues, breaking into the Democrats’ “stronghold on the black community,” talking to the news media without getting into trouble, grass-roots campaigning skills, fundraising and “dealing with Obamacare,” according to a program.
Joe Crawford, a longtime party activist from Charles County, said attracting more young people and minorities to the party is key to its future success. He boasted that his county’s central committee includes an African American woman, Sandra Reissig.
“Who knew? If you actually go and ask someone to participate, they will,” Crawford said. He said he and other old-timers “still have a good bit of energy . . . but how long is that going to last?”
Charles, a fast-growing area about 35 miles south of Washington, went for Democrat Anthony G. Brown in the governor’s race, but only by a few percentage points.
Crawford said attendance at GOP meetings in the county spiked before the election and then continued to grow, even though the county — like the state overall — has more than twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. Other Republicans reported similar bursts of energy and interest in their counties.
“I see people who are starting to pay attention who never paid attention,” said Maria Pycha, first vice chairwoman for the Baltimore County GOP. “We have to stay out there and keep the momentum.”