A Maryland GOP Revival?

June 27, 1993

Maryland Republicans are unusually upbeat these days. They can foresee the GOP sun finally rising next year. The outlook, as they see it: a realistic shot for governor and attorney general.

Is this the latest pipe dream of a state GOP that remains a shell of a viable opposition party? Or is it the start of a vigorous %J campaign to take advantage of changing circumstances?

Judging from the state party's spring convention, there's more going on than wishful thinking. A straw poll of GOP officials pushed one candidate, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Neall, closer to a decision on running for governor: he was the overwhelming favorite among party leaders. Another Republican with solid fiscal credentials, House Minority Leader Ellen Sauerbrey, finished second, and now plans to run for governor.

Meanwhile, Richard D. Bennett, who recently resigned as U.S. attorney for Maryland, easily won the straw poll balloting for attorney general. That gives him a boost in his race against Howard County Del. Robert Flanagan. Either could prove a formidable candidate in the general election.

Two questions, though, still trouble the GOP. What will Helen Bentley do? And can the GOP come up with a worthy candidate to oppose Democratic incumbent Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes?

Mrs. Bentley remains undecided. She and some of her advisers think she can win the race for governor. But that would mean giving up her safe seat in Congress. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bentley's hesitation has irritated state party leaders. They would like to see her remain where she is and let Mr. Neall or Mrs. Sauerbrey run for governor.

The Bentley/Neall questions should be resolved by fall. But the Senate nomination is more troubling. It strikes at the heart of the state party's decades-long decline: The GOP cannot find a heavyweight candidate. The straw-poll winner was an Eastern Shore dentist, Del. Ronald Franks. Party professionals give him two chances of beating the entrenched Mr. Sarbanes: slim and none.

There's a better option for Republicans. They can turn to Connie Morella. The popular four-term congresswoman from Montgomery County is heir to the Mathias-McKeldin moderate wing of the party. Her brand of social advocacy and fiscal responsibility would make her the centrist against Mr. Sarbanes' unyielding liberalism. A GOP Senate gain would be a distinct possibility.

But Mrs. Morella doesn't want to leave her safe seat. National Republicans, though, are urging her to take a calculated risk. Given Republican registration gains, unhappiness with incumbent Democrats and the prospects of strong GOP candidates for other statewide races, Mrs. Morella should reconsider. Her choice might determine whether the Maryland Republican revival is real or a mirage.

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