REPUBLICANS in Maryland have a rare opportunity to break out of the box that has prevented them from winning statewide offices. But such a dramatic step would threaten the status quo, something that alarms many dedicated party officials.
Without bold action, the state GOP seems consigned to permanent minority-party status. Democrats have a big edge in voter registration, a lock on top state posts and a deep bench of polished local officeholders eager to continue Democratic dominance.
In the face of such overwhelming odds, it is not surprising that the GOP's strongest gubernatorial candidate in 30 years, Ellen Sauerbrey, got run over by a fast-moving Democratic freight train driven by Gov. Parris Glendening last November. The numbers just aren't on the GOP's side.
Here's the dilemma: Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland 58 percent to 30 percent. That's too wide a gap to close if most Democrats stick with their party's candidates.
But what if Republicans made significant inroads among Maryland's independents? They make up the remaining 12 percent of state voters -- 316,654 of them.
Richard Bennett, state GOP chairman, wants central committee approval of a temporary change aimed at drawing independents into the Republican orbit by letting them vote in the GOP's 2000 presidential primary.
That's one way of generating excitement among independents, who frequently lose interest in politics because they aren't allowed to participate in the all-important party primary elections. It could persuade some independents to join the GOP or look favorably upon candidates they help nominate in the primary.
With a field of celebrity candidates vying for the Republican presidential spot -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush, former American Red Cross president Elizabeth Dole, publisher Steve Forbes, commentator Pat Buchanan, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Vice President Dan Quayle -- turnout among independents, for once, could be high.
That's Mr. Bennett's hope. He may have enough central committee support to get his resolution passed, though some party stalwarts are fighting the idea, fearing that it will dilute the right wing's influence in party primaries.
Yet even if Mr. Bennett gets his way, it won't be enough to turn the tide for Maryland's GOP.
He's only seeking a one-time exemption. Republicans need a permanent open primary system that creates a home for independents. The GOP would gain a distinct advantage over Democrats, who are loathe to consider such a change. Closed primaries benefit Democrats, not Republicans.
Independents are the fastest-growing segment of the voting electorate. Much of that growth is coming at the expense of the Democratic Party, which is slowly slipping in its voter-registration percentage nationwide. If this trend continues, a coalition of independents and Republicans might be able to end the Democrats' hegemony in Maryland.
But that won't happen if Republicans slam the door on independents after the 2000 presidential primary.
Yet that is the likely scenario. Republican officials worry about independents holding the balance in future primary races for state central committee and local offices. The status quo is under attack.
Conservatives feel most vulnerable. They see a vast left-wing conspiracy aimed at robbing them of their control of the Maryland GOP. Some are even turning on Ms. Sauerbrey -- the heroine of state Republican conservatives -- for daring to support Mr. Bennett's one-time-only experiment.
Yet she sees most clearly what is needed to make Republicans victors, not martyrs. There aren't enough conservatives in Maryland for Republicans to win statewide elections on their own. The party needs to widen its appeal, and the logical expansion area is among independents.
That would mean showing flexibility in crafting policy. It would mean embracing viewpoints beyond the conservative perspective. It would mean accepting change -- however uncomfortable.
Sure, central committee members are covetous of their roles. They are worried that an influx of independents could cost them their posts in the 2002 primary and rob the party of its conservative-ness. These are natural concerns.
But sometimes you have to set aside immediate fears to achieve long-range objectives. Otherwise, Maryland Republicans could face many more fruitless years wandering in the barren political desert.
Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.
Pub Date: 5/09/99