GOP gains come after years of rebuilding

September 22, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

MARYLAND'S RESURGENT Republican Party is exuding the sweet smell of success.

Republicans have nominated a candidate for governor whose conservative message peels like a clear bell on a cold night. They have nominated 140 candidates for the General Assembly and expect to pick up four to six seats in the state senate and a dozen or more in the state house. And, by golly, they turned out 100,000 more voters on primary day than they usually do.

Begin with the vote. A tad more than 230,000 Republican regulars -- 34 percent -- voted on primary day, up from the 21 percent who checked in for the 1990 party jamboree. Party registration is up to 677,000, an impressive uptick though still a slug's pace behind the 1.4 million Democrats who carry party cards.

The Maryland Republican Party has been in an aggressive building mode since 1990 when it added more seats in the legislature than any other state in the country. Its roster now includes seven senators and 25 delegates in the 188-member General Assembly. In November they're hoping to nearly double the number of GOP senators and increase their house delegation by half.

Up and down the ticket the GOP is in a cocked-fist competitive mode. Their U.S. Senate candidate is millionaire candy man William Brock, their attorney general candidate is former U.S. Attorney Richard Bennett and the thankless job of running for comptroller belongs to Boonsboro banker Timothy R. Mayberry -- the "who?" of the 1994 campaign.

So meet the person leading the assault -- the candidate who's a giant step closer to becoming Maryland's first female governor -- Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, house minority leader for the past four years, iron-maiden disciple of Reaganomics, doyenne of the gun club folks, the religious right, the anti-abortion lobby and assorted other full-mooners.

Unlike their braggart brethren in other states, Maryland's network of Bible-thumpers kept their cool, assembled their telephone lists and a week before the primary election they had the fiber-optic zinging with get-out-the vote calls.

In nominating Mrs. Sauerbrey and Mr. Mayberry, Republican voters, in a sense, rejected the party's mainstream. They booted out gubernatorial candidate Helen Delich Bentley, who waddles around the party's center, and they stiff-armed comptroller candidate Richard Taylor who serves on the Republican National Committee along with Mrs. Bentley.

So the question that's begging for an answer is this conundrum: Is the Republican Party swerving toward the right or is the state itself becoming more conservative?

One insight into the puzzle is that Mrs. Sauerbrey carried all but three subdivisions, including goo-goo Montgomery County where Mrs. Bentley had the imprimatur of the GOP establishment and popular local running-mate -- state Sen. Howard Denis.

Mrs. Sauerbrey lost only in Baltimore City (by 537 votes), Allegany (by 343 votes) and Harford (by 25 votes) counties. She received 33,414 more votes than Mrs. Bentley. Mrs. Sauerbrey's largest percentage of votes was in conservative Carroll and Frederick counties.

Democrats are not only betting but also openly saying that Mrs. Sauerbrey is the voodoo doll of the nutcake fringe. And Republicans, citing presidential victories in Maryland in 1984 and 1988, contend that the state itself is tilting right, especially in the suburbs.

As sure as God intended it to be, the showcase issue of the general election campaign is Mrs. Sauerbrey's headline-grabbing proposal to reduce taxes by 24 percent, 6 percent a year over four years, and her companion pledge to forgo the governor's $120,000 annual salary if she doesn't accomplish her self-imposed mission in the first year. In the larger sense, Mrs. Sauerbrey has defined the campaign's theme and forced her Democratic opponent, Parris Glendening, on the defensive.

Mrs. Sauerbrey's campaign rapmasters are following a winning prescription written in at least six other states. In New Jersey, Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Massachusetts and Delaware, they say, taxes have been cut and government spending has been slashed as a way of stimulating economic development.

What they don't include in the mantra, though, is that New Jersey was able to carry out the sleight-of-hand by looting the state pension system and forestalling contributions to the fund until the year 2000.

Moreover, cutting state taxes would also reduce local revenues because local piggyback taxes are imposed at a rate of up to 60 percent of the state income tax. Undaunted, Mrs. Sauerbrey says she would compensate by giving local governments additional taxing authority. Go figure.

Yet it was this emotional message -- combined with her portrayal of Mrs. Bentley as Gov. William Donald Schaefer in drag -- that resonated with Republican voters.

Another emerging theme in Mrs. Sauerbrey's campaign is her rightful claim of being unbought and unbossed. Translation: Mrs. Sauerbrey accepted public financing and in doing so automatically agreed to a $997,000 general election spending limit.

By contrast, Mr. Glendening raised $3.4 million before the primary election and the tambourine is now available for the general. Mrs. Bentley had raised $1.5 million for the Republican primary compared to Mrs. Sauerbrey's $250,000 in public financing.

So while Democrats count their money, Republicans are counting their blessings. The party's underdog has become the upper-dog.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics from Owings Mills.

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