Md. GOP needs a moderate like N.J.'s Whitman

November 05, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

ELLEN Sauerbrey summed it up on election night: "I don't know what more we could have done."

Indeed, the Republican Party in Maryland pulled out all the stops to get Ms. Sauerbrey into the governor's office. They raised millions for her. They crafted a campaign run by polished professionals. They had a huge get-out-the-vote effort.

Still it wasn't enough.

What's wrong with Maryland's GOP? The party hasn't won a race for governor in 32 years. You have to go back to 1954 -- 44 years ago -- to find a Republican gubernatorial candidate who received more than 50 percent of the vote.

This time, they thought they had it won. Ms. Sauerbrey nearly pulled an upset four years ago, coming within 5,996 votes. With a strong surge in newly registered Republicans in the suburbs, and a decline in Democratic city voters, 1998 looked like Ms. Sauerbrey's year.

Instead, she was dealt a humiliating defeat, losing by more than 160,000 votes. She got weaker, not stronger, between the two elections. Indeed, Ms. Sauerbrey received nearly 40,000 fewer votes this time, even though the number of ballots cast for governor was up by roughly 100,000.

Even in the rural and suburban counties where she won, Ms. Sauerbrey's margin fell well short of 1994: Instead of 65 percent in Frederick County, she got 60 percent; in St. Mary's County, she slipped from 62 percent to 54 percent.

She went from 54 percent to 48 percent in Allegany County; ditto in Howard County.

Surprisingly, in her Baltimore County stronghold (also home to her lieutenant governor and comptroller running mates) she stumbled, finishing a few thousand votes ahead of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

She also drew less support in Glendening bastions, finishing with a pathetic 19 percent of the Baltimore vote, vs. 24 percent four years ago.

Losing control

Ms. Sauerbrey lost control of this campaign in the final weeks. Once Mr. Glendening started pounding her for her alleged anti-civil-rights votes, the Republicans seemed flummoxed. Internal Sauerbrey tracking polls, which had shown a comfortable 5 point lead, began dropping.

She was off-balance and on the defensive. She spent her money trying to refute the questionable Glendening assertion that she was a racist, rather than ignoring the charge and putting a positive spin on her plans to protect individual rights as governor.

In the end, Marylanders rejected Ms. Sauerbrey's conservatism. Maryland remains a middle of the road, progressive state, where folks care deeply about education, the environment and the quality of life. Those weren't her main themes. People aren't excited about tax cuts; instead, they want better government services.

Even on issues where Ms. Sauerbrey took a strong stand -- limiting government's reach into a person's life and public safety -- she was at odds with voters.

Ms. Sauerbrey remains a foe of abortion rights for women, a view that runs counter to the overwhelming position of state voters. She also remains a foe of gun-control laws, which many city and suburban dwellers believe are essential in cutting crime.

Who vs. Sarbanes?

Can any conservative Republican win in Maryland? Ms. Sauerbrey's loss sends a chilling message to Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich about taking on Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes in 2000. It could be a suicide mission for a hard-line conservative to run statewide.

In this century, no true conservative Republican has been elected governor of Maryland. When will the GOP get the message? In Maryland, only moderate conservatives cut in the mold of New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman, or the Bush brothers, George W., Texas governor, and Jeb, governor elect of Florida, would stand a chance.

Ms. Sauerbrey tried to soften her stances a bit for public consumption, but it fooled no one. Her 16-year conservative record in the legislature told a different tale. Mr. Glendening won a solid majority of the state's moderate voters, and with that centrist majority, he coasted to victory.

The close results in 1994 turned out to be a fluke. Conservative Republicans remain too far right for the voting public. Until the state GOP gets that message, it may have to wander in the political desert for a long, long time.

Barry Rascovar, deputy editorial page editor, is the author of "The Great Game of Maryland Politics," published by The Baltimore Sun.

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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