State GOP approves open primary

Party says independents, not Democrats, can vote in March 2000 contest

May 23, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland Republicans, attempting to broaden their appeal after a stinging defeat in November, voted narrowly yesterday to open their presidential primary in March to independent voters.

The decision to open the party's primaries, proposed by Maryland Republican Chairman Richard D. Bennett, was a victory for party pragmatists and a setback for conservative traditionalists who view the action as close to political heresy.

Approval of the measure came at the state Republican convention after a raucous but courteous two-hour debate that pitted close ideological allies against each other. The margin, under the party's voting system, was 70-62.

Bennett won passage of the measure -- and avoided an embarrassing repudiation in his first major initiative as party chairman -- with the influential support of two-time gubernatorial nominee and GOP National Committeewoman Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Still beloved by party conservatives despite her attempts to project a more moderate image last year, Sauerbrey led off the argument for the measure.

"We cannot move our agenda if we can't win," said Sauerbrey, who twice fell short of defeating Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "I don't see this as a sellout. I see it as a reach-out."

But oratorical fireworks showed that not all Republicans share Sauerbrey's benign view of the 12 percent of Maryland voters -- more than 300,000 -- who decline to affiliate with a political party.

"They are political cowards who do not deserve our time of day," thundered E. Scott Hollenbeck, a member of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee.

Former Anne Arundel County Del. Michael W. Burns urged central committee members to "let Republicans be Republicans" and reject a role for independents in their primaries.

"I don't mind them coming into the church if they're declines," said Burns. "I just don't want them selecting the minister."

The measure applies only to the March 2000 election, when Republicans will nominate presidential, congressional and U.S. Senate candidates.

No way back?

Opponents expressed concern that once the party opened the door to unaffiliated voters, it could never go back to Republican-only primaries.

But Bennett repeated a public commitment not to seek to let independents vote in the gubernatorial primary in 2002. He noted that Republicans choose their central committee members in non-presidential years, adding that it would be inappropriate to have independents vote for party officials.

The strongest support at the convention came from Baltimore, Baltimore County and the Washington suburbs. The opposition was concentrated in such fast-growing semi-rural counties as Harford, Frederick, St. Mary's and Calvert.

After the debate -- at the Sheraton International Hotel at Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- Republican leaders moved quickly to close ranks. Bennett stepped down from the podium to give Burns a bear hug.

"It's a very productive day for the party. We had a spirited and polite debate," Bennett said. "I think it's a good step in the right direction."

`The party's split'

Burns said he was disappointed by the outcome.

"Clearly the party's split on the issue. Clearly a lot of Republicans are going to be very unhappy about this and they might decline to vote," he said.

The vote to open the primary comes in the wake of a bitterly disappointing election for the state's perennially outvoted Republicans. Their high hopes of seizing the governor's office were dashed in a 55-45 percent shellacking, and their anticipated gains in the General Assembly turned into a six-seat loss.

Peter B. Krauser, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, called the move "an act of desperation by a party that's given up trying to find people willing to call themselves Republicans."

"The Republican Party seems to be in the throes of an identity crisis of who they are and what they stand for," he said. The Democrats now enjoy nearly a 2-to-1 registration edge over the Republicans.

Opponents characterized the Bennett proposal as a move toward the open primary system used in some states, but it is actually more of a hybrid. In a true open system, a voter can choose which primary to vote in regardless of affiliation. The Maryland GOP decision opens voting to unaffiliated voters but not to Democratic cross-overs.

Bennett said the change would not require action by the General Assembly.

Some party activists predicted the now-you-can, now-you-can't message could backfire in 2002.

Action spurs debate

"If you tell someone that can vote in this election and not the next one, what kind of message does that send?" said Paul H. Rappaport, the party's nominee for lieutenant governor in 1994 and attorney general in 1998. Rappaport, did not attend the convention, but opposed the measure.

But Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said the adoption of the proposal advances Republican efforts to become the state's majority party.

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