CHANCES ARE good that Maryland Republicans will have a primary battle in 1992 to see who faces Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the Democratic junior senator. Several solid Republicans are seriously looking at the race. That in itself tells the tale of a GOP comeback from the edge to being competitive in a two-party state.
Republicans haven't quite evened the odds with the long dominant Democrats. But as this year's elections showed, the GOP is a real contender everywhere in the state except in Baltimore city and Prince George's County.
And that was enough for a joyous, exuberant winter convention for the state GOP last weekend. They cheered a parade of winners for a change: a new member of Congress, Wayne T. Gilchrest; three new county executives, Robert Neall from Anne Arundel, Roger Hayden from Baltimore and Charles Ecker from Howard; plus assorted new senators and delegates to the General Assembly.
This was a far different sight than past sessions of infighting and arguing about who was responsible for losses. Republicans are looking ahead with confidence now. They have good reason to.
Registration trends continue to favor the GOP. In the last six years, the party has gained some 70,000 new voters. During the same period, some 181,000 Democratic voters vanished from the rolls.
In 1984, Democrats had a 2.8-to-1 edge over the GOP in registration. By the close of registration this October, that margin had fallen to 2.18 to 1. The GOP's target is to break the 2-to-1 Democratic edge by next June.
What is most impressive about GOP registration gains is geography. Republicans have made their biggest gains in the fast-growing suburban counties. In the past six years, they have added over 10,000 voters in Baltimore County, more than 12,000 in Anne Arundel County, close to 12,000 in Howard County and over 7,000 in Harford County. In the four counties of Western Maryland, the GOP is within 563 new registrants of matching the Democrats.
As Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, the senior GOP office-holder in the state, pointed out, what helped the GOP this year was that the party got their vote out. Overall Republican turnout was 60 percent but in some key counties, including the Eastern Shore, turnout soared. Somerset County saw a 73 percent GOP turnout, Kent 71 percent and Talbot 66 percent.
This sort of performance inspires confidence for the future. That's why a line is forming for the 1992 Senate race. Dr. Allan Levey, a former GOP state chairman, was escorting Joseph E. DiGenova, the former U. S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and introducing him as a Senate hopeful.
A resident of Montgomery County, DiGenova was "looking at the whole thing very seriously." For six years, he worked on the staff of Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, the last Republican to win a statewide race. The 45-year-old DiGenova says he is different from some other Republicans who made their name in the federal government and then took a chance at Maryland politics though they had no roots in the state. DiGenova, for example, worked on legislation that inaugurated the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.
The most logical GOP opponent for Sen. Mikulski is Bentley, the GOP national committeewoman and a four-term winner in the 2nd District. With her long-time interest in the port, she has carved out a base of support in nominally Democratic blue-collar areas of Baltimore County. And she came within a dog's whisker of jumping into the contest against Sen. Paul Sarbanes two years ago.
Unlike 1988, when the Republican party was recruiting candidates in desperation, the GOP can sit back and wait now. After helping tie the party together, Joyce Lyons Terhes, the GOP chairman, has to be considered a potential candidate for almost any race. Others who may have an interest include Alan L. Keyes, the former diplomat who maintains his popularity with party activists for his hard run at Sarbanes in 1988. The list also includes Joshua Smith, chairman of Maxima Corporation, one of the largest black-run firms in the nation, and Tom Clancy, the conservative novelist who has made millions from his spy and adventure thrillers.
The GOP has other 1992 targets. Bentley said the party also should make hard runs at Democratic representatives Beverly Byron and Tom McMillen. And the party will be working to win the state once again for President Bush.
Bentley summed up the mood of the convention with her opening line. "What a great time it is to be a Maryland Republican!"