Why GOP conservatives fear Arundel's choice of Neall A divided party in Md. could hurt '98 hopes

December 09, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith and Scott Wilson | C. Fraser Smith and Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

The recent nasty spat over which state Senate candidate in Anne Arundel County had the purest Republican credentials leaves the Maryland GOP with a delicate question:

Was all that sniping a case of growing pains in a single county or was it the symptom of a potentially crippling statewide affliction for the party?

Three-term legislator and former County Executive Robert R. Neall was chosen Saturday by the county Republican Central Committee to complete the term of Sen. John A. Cade, who died on Nov. 14. His opponent was first-term Del. Robert C. Baldwin, a politician with 14 years less experience in elected office.

But Neall's selection came over shrill protests from county conservatives, who said his legislative record of forging alliances with the opposing party left him with "the stink of Democrats."

Without the votes of Democrats, though, the party's otherwise promising prospects for 1998 are significantly weakened: Despite many advances, Republicans remain a 2-to-1 underdog in voter registration.

Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey attracted many Democratic votes in 1994, overcoming a huge disadvantage in campaign contributions as well, and came within 6,000 votes of victory in the governor's race.

Without her approval -- and against her best efforts, she says -- some of those who worked with her in 1994 were part of the effort to block Neall. Party conservatives fear Neall, a favorite among moderate Republicans and business interests, may challenge Sauerbrey for the nomination in two years, although he has said he has no plans to run.

Sauerbrey says she knows a divided party would damage her chance of winning in 1998, but she subscribes to the growing pains theory to explain the outburst in Anne Arundel.

"A mountain has been made of a molehill," she said. "There is no rift. When you build a grass-roots party, there are always a few free agents who make statements that don't reflect what anyone but the person who made the statement believes."

Joyce Lyons Terhes, the GOP chairwoman, was dismayed at the ferocity of the opposition to Neall, but she echoed the Sauerbrey assessment.

"It's growing pains," Terhes said. "When we didn't have the numbers, people were pleased with any gains we made.

"Now you have a lot of young people, and when anything grows, there are going to be differences of opinion. If we are going to be the big tent, we have to accommodate them."

But would the newcomers be accommodating?

Asked if conservative Republicans would rather lose on principle than win with a candidate such as Neall, Allen Furth, a 33-year-old engineer and a member of Anne Arundel's Young Republican Club, said, "I wouldn't discount that straight out."

Thus, others in the party find the Anne Arundel case a troubling one.

"There is great concern that the party is going back to where it was and all the gains we made will be lost," said former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who lost to Sauerbrey in the 1994 GOP primary.

Remembering the 1980s

The Anne Arundel fight left some in the GOP remembering the mid- and late 1980s when strongly conservative elements, also based in Anne Arundel, took control of the state party but failed to move it forward.

A coalition of establishment conservatives and moderates regained control, and with Sauerbrey adopting a more confrontational style as minority leader in the House of Delegates, it registered many new Republicans, elected many Republicans and in 1994 made the GOP's strongest bid for a statewide office in more than a decade.

But the slash-and-burn conservative element remains strong, and some believe it -- not the moderate element -- is the party's real cornerstone.

Neall and the man he succeeds, Cade, were characterized by their opponents in Anne Arundel as "collaborators." Though chalked up to the exuberance of neophytes, that language resonates through the recent history of the Maryland Republican Party.

In 1984, Richard Andrews gave voice to the frustration of other Republican conservatives when, during a Maryland party convention, he referred to then-U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias as a "liberal swine." Mathias, who decided not to run for re-election, was a man who won against the odds in Maryland by muting his GOP identity and making alliances with union members and Democrats.

Party regulars resented what they saw as less-than-energetic courting of his own party's core. Andrews was charged by some with the sort of rhetoric that divides a party.

Or unifies it, according to others.

"In the party wars, as I call them, I was probably a bomb thrower," said Del. Michael W. Burns, a Glen Burnie resident and former executive director of the party. "I have believed since I was a young sprout that the secret to our party's success was to clearly define who we are, what we stand for and how we are different. I have never understood the purpose of being a me-too Democrat. It's no way to build a long-term party strategy."

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