One of the big surprises of this yearís election campaign has been the dearth of leadership from the Republican Party on key ballot questions.
After all, Republicans were the most vocal in opposing a gay-marriage bill and a bill giving in-state tuition breaks to college-age children of illegal immigrants. Republicans then were at the forefront gathering referendum petitions.
The stateís redistricting map is on the ballot, too, because Republicans initiated and led that signature drive.
It also was near-solid Republican opposition in the legislature that almost killed a gambling expansion referendum bill approved in August.
Given all this hard work, it is curious the state GOP has not become the public voice of these opposition campaigns.
Thereís no big fundraising drive, no attempt to use these controversies to stimulate Republican voter registration and rally public support for the GOP.
Perhaps Marylandís weak Republican Party has reached a tipping point.
The GOP already is a non-factor in Marylandís biggest jurisdictions. It is losing the numbers battle to Democrats and independents. Mitt Romney has no chance of winning Marylandís 10 electoral votes. The state GOP is so feeble its nominee for U.S. Senate could finish an embarrassing third.
Since the last presidential election, the GOP has signed up just 36,000 new voters versus 163,000 for the Democrats and 127,000 who registered as unaffiliated. The situation is so bleak that in August there were more names removed from the state GOP voter lists (7,066) than were added (6,172).
Yet this yearís referendums present Marylandís minority party with a rare opportunity that is being squandered.
Why hasnít the GOP allied itself with Penn National Gaming, which is spending astounding sums to defeat the gambling expansion question on the ballot? Penn National could provide campaign financing the impoverished state GOP sorely needs.
Why hasnít the state GOP built strong ties to black mega-churches in Prince Georgeís County that oppose the gambling and same-sex marriage questions? Finding like-minded souls in that important county is crucial if thereís ever going to be a Republican renaissance in Maryland.
Why hasnít the state GOP persuaded big donors to sponsor a major drive aimed at killing the Democratsí dreadful congressional redistricting maps? A huge ďnoĒ vote would put pressure on the majority party to draw more impartial maps next time — a necessity if the GOP wants to mount a real challenge in some of those districts.
Why has the state GOP taken a back seat on the same-sex marriage question? Catholic priests and African-American ministers arenít shy about rounding up ďnoĒ votes. Their parishioners are being told repeatedly that biblical doctrine is being violated.
What a wonderful chance Republicans are missing.
Tradition-minded voters clinging to the ages-old definition of marriage have much in common with the Republican Party. Forming a coalition with socially conservative Catholics and African-Americans could rejuvenate the state GOP.
But where is the energy and ambition among state Republican leaders?
Finally, what about the lack of GOP leadership to defeat the referendum on giving a tuition break to children of illegal immigrants? Republicans fought bitterly in Annapolis against this measure and then got it placed on the ballot. Why isnít this a centerpiece issue for the GOP?
Ever since its founding in 1854 the Republican Party has had a nativist, anti-immigrant streak. Fighting furiously to defeat this referendum would fit in with that history.
Instead, the state GOP has largely abandoned this issue. Thereís no well-spring of organized opposition from state Republicans. Backers of in-state tuition for these college-age kids are drawing considerable public attention without much push-back from the GOP.
Whatever potency is left in the Maryland Republican Party seems focused on throwing a lifeline to 10-term incumbent Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, whose far western Maryland/Montgomery County district is now viewed as leaning strongly toward Democratic challenger John Delaney.
Losing Bartlett would leave the GOP with just one of the stateís eight congressional seats — Andy Harris, whose district is dependably Republican.
Bartlett isnít the most energetic campaigner at age 86, and his congressional record lacks accomplishments. Promoting the arch-conservative incumbent to Montgomery voters could prove particularly problematic.
If the state GOP had financial resources, better candidates and savvy leadership, this could have been a banner comeback year.
After all, the referendum issues play right into the conservative partyís hands:
- The immorality and greed of gambling expansion;
- State-sanctioned violations of religious beliefs toward marriage;
- The terrible waste of millions in taxpayer dollars on foolish tuition breaks for kids whose parents arenít even U.S. citizens;
- Flagrant, unfair and unrepresentative congressional districts.
A populist party on the rise would make hay from such an appealing array of issues that play to its strength. All the hard work in Annapolis and on signature-gathering drives isnít being followed up with a well-planned, well-coordinated campaign to capitalize on the 2012 referendum votes.
Once again, the Maryland Republican Party is proving its irrelevance as an opposition party. The state GOP isnít putting up enough of a fight to turn around its increasingly bleak situation.
Barry Rascovar is a political columnist and a communications consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.