Maryland's wayward Republican Party
Some folks are a little slow on the uptake. That's certainly the case with Jim Pelura, the embattled Maryland Republican Party chairman who refused to recognize he was doing more harm than good by staying in his job.
Pelura will leave as GOP chairman in six weeks. No one will shed any tears. His three-year reign witnessed an alarming decline in the party's ability to remain competitive in this lopsided Democratic state.
The state party has no money and a stiff IOU to pay back to national GOP chairman Michael Steele. Pelura's fund-raising efforts flopped.
Voters are deserting the state party in droves. The number of registered Republicans in Maryland dropped nearly 10 percent during Pelura's tenure. The gap between registered Republicans and Democrats has grown from 26 percent to 31 percent.
Recruitment and training of candidates has been lacking. The entire GOP infrastructure is in shambles.
Yet Pelura stubbornly remained. Even after he was denounced by the GOP's House and Senate leaders, he clung to power. He was unbowed when the GOP's executive committee voted "no confidence."
It's clear in hindsight Pelura was mismatched from the start. He viewed the office as a strong, policy-making post. As he said in August, "My view of the party is it should be the voice of Republicans in the state … When you don't have a governor, the chairman of the party is the spokesman."
But is the GOP chairman supposed to upbraid Republican legislators when he doesn't like the votes they cast or the issues they emphasize? Should the GOP chairman be telling Republicans in the General Assembly what to vote for and what to propose?
Pelura thought so.
There's no doubt the GOP's state party chairman sometimes serves as the primary mouthpiece for state Republicans. Steele ably filled that role during Parris Glendening's final years in office.
But Steele didn't try to set the agenda: He reacted to Democratic policy decisions and kept the GOP viable with media-savvy critiques that gained him and the party considerable attention —enough so that Bob Ehrlich put Steele on his gubernatorial ticket in 2002.
Steele, though, understood party-building was his primary duty. Pelura just wants to mandate policy for elected Republicans.
Maryland's GOP finds itself in woeful shape. This is ironic because 2010 is shaping up as a year when the party might rebound after a dismal 2006 performance.
Given the current public anger toward Washington, the next election might favor Republican candidates who are well-funded, well-organized and are backed by a strong local party infrastructure.
The problem in Maryland is that the GOP lacks quality candidates, is nearly broke and has a dysfunctional organization.
On top of those daunting obstacles, the local GOP is turning away the kinds of candidates who have the best chance of winning in Maryland — pragmatic moderates. The party is becoming a conservative monolith with no room for Ronald Reagan's "Big Tent" philosophy. Moderates are ostracized. GOP politicians who work with Democrats are labeled as appeasers who must be run out of the party.
Two of the most influential Republican lawmakers in Annapolis over the past decade — former senators P.J. Hogan and Bobby Neall — were driven from the party for daring to consort with Democrats. The party lost a congressional seat on the Eastern Shore by vilifying former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest for supporting Democrats too often in Washington. It lost another congressional seat in Montgomery County by doing the same thing to former Rep. Connie Morella, who favored practical results over ideology.
So now Maryland's feeble GOP is left with only a few strands of hope.
State Sen. Andy Harris may be able to capitalize on anti-Washington sentiment in the First Congressional District in next year's rematch with Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil. Harris has shown he can raise sufficient funds to be competitive in a district that usually favors Republicans.
But Harris' abrasive, know-it-all attitude turned off some Republican voters and undecided Democrats last time. And next year, Kratovil will be far better known and will have even stronger financial support from state and national Democrats.
The other vestige of hope for Republicans lies in the "return of the king." If Ehrlich concludes that he has a realistic shot at regaining the governorship, the state GOP's fortunes would turn around in a matter of weeks.
Ehrlich is the only state Republican capable of galvanizing party workers, generating a flood of cash and giving the party a much-needed boost of energy.
No other viable GOP candidate is on the horizon.
It's not an easy call for Ehrlich. Rescuing the state party would be noble. It also could be a fool's errand.
Demographic and voting trends in Maryland heavily favor Democratic candidates. As yet there is no burning issue that could give Republicans a chance next year. If Gov. Martin O'Malley mishandles the state's budget crisis, that could provide an opening for Ehrlich, though.
But history shows Ehrlich also would need a deep split within the Democratic Party to win. Only if O'Malley faces a stiff primary challenge could the Republican nominee attract enough disaffected Democrats and Independents to level the election playing field.
We probably won't know if that will happen until late spring. Ehrlich would not have much time to prepare for a costly campaign. At the moment, the stars aren't aligned for an Ehrlich comeback. The state GOP may have to muddle through without its most popular candidate at the top of its 2010 ticket.
Barry Rascovar is a longtime State House columnist and a communications consultant. He can be contacted at email@example.com.