Sauerbrey Takes Maryland GOP on Path to Right

September 18, 1994|By C. FRASER SMITH

With barely hours to savor her victory in last Tuesday's Republican gubernatorial primary, Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey collided head-on with the common political wisdom.

Actually, it was the Common Wisdom, Part II.

She had upset the unbeatable party leader, Helen Delich Bentley. Now she was being told she was too rigidly conservative to win the governorship in Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1.

Horseback analysts said the GOP had squandered its best chance to win back the governorship after 28 years on the outside.

Mrs. Bentley, more moderate and more expedient, had been the better choice, according to this analysis. She held her 2nd District seat in Congress for a decade by convincing thousands of blue-collar Democrats to vote Republican.

She had adopted the formula perfected by the late Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, a Republican governor and mayor of Baltimore in the 1950s and later burnished to high luster by former U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias. The Democrats edge in voter registration was more on the order of 3-to-1 in those days.

Mr. Mathias and Mrs. Bentley kept their party alive by denying it, by muting their GOP identity, reaching out to Democratic labor and distributing "pork" as if it were a staple of good government -- not a sin.

Mrs. Sauerbrey eschews much of this approach to success. On the day after her primary win, she offered no concession to the political center.

"You'll see very little softening," said Joyce L. Terhes, the state party chairman.

As the general election campaign opened, Mrs. Sauerbrey promised to be the same anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-government candidate she had been in the primary and for 16 years in public office.

Thus the conclusion: The Maryland GOP had squeezed off yet another colossal and crippling foot-shot.

Mrs. Sauerbrey listened to this analysis just before her party's unity brunch last Wednesday in Annapolis. She smiled broadly as if the world around her was trapped in the 1970s, remarkably clue-less.

"Maryland is not the Maryland of 20 years ago," she said. "Today, the minds and hearts of people are moving in our direction."

Republicans have been saying the same thing in Maryland for years: The state is not as liberal or even as Democratic as its registration figures suggest. Only the Nov. 8 general election returns can tell if, finally, they are right.

From another perspective, the nomination of Mrs. Sauerbrey represents a true maturing of Republicanism in Maryland, a decisive step beyond the mere survival of the party under Mrs. Bentley's scrappy leadership.

Though its officers seemed a bit stunned by the coup executed by its rank and file last week, several party members said they believe Mrs. Sauerbrey's uncompromising quest will turn out to be the more politically salable strategy.

"A moderate Republican who's just a pale shade of Democrat doesn't give people a reason to vote Republican," said Kevin Igoe, a former executive director of the Maryland GOP.

"I would suggest," Mrs. Sauerbrey said, "that you look at Ronald Reagan, who carried Maryland twice. George Bush, with his moderate message, did not do well."

In the conservative congressional districts, the nomination was regarded as an unalloyed blessing.

"For my own parochial concerns," said Donald Devine, the former university professor and federal personnel director under Mr. Reagan, "it's a very good selection." Mr. Devine is running against Democrat Rep. Steny H. Hoyer in the 5th District -- parts of Prince George's, Charles, St. Mary's and Calvert counties.

Eastern Shore Republicans were equally enthusiastic.

"Mrs. Bentley would've been tough for us to run with," said Rich Colburn, a former delegate hoping to win the state senate seat vacated this year by Dorchester's Frederick C. Malkus.

"The Democrats would have portrayed Helen as a continuation of Governor Schaefer. They can't do that with Ellen."

The party's task, said its U.S. Senate nominee, former Tennessee Sen. Bill Brock, is to "build on the synergy of people who share a common value system."

The question is: How many share that system? Mrs. Sauerbrey said government's functions should largely be limited to educating children, safeguarding the populace and managing the taxpayer's money. All of these things can be done better with less money, she seems to be saying.

The government she envisions for Maryland can be 24 percent smaller than it is now. Even after several years of budget emergencies, she says more cutting is a necessity.

"I want you to wake up the day after I'm elected knowing the fruits of your labors are yours," she said the day after her primary victory.

Those who deserve to be saved by the safety net will be, she said -- while observing that many taxpayers in Maryland are paying for programs they don't use. Mrs. Sauerbrey will undoubtedly be asked to say more precisely how she would approach the nettling issues of welfare and dependency.

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