Maryland's GOP: a promising work in progress

August 29, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

IF ANTI-BUSH demonstrators don't rain on their parade, Convention Week 2004 could be a further step in the Maryland Republican Party's hoped-for new beginning.

It's been 36 years since the party went to a national nominating convention with one of its own ensconced in the State House. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will be at the helm of a party enjoying more political strength than Republicans could claim for many, if not most, of those years out of power.

The convention will offer a week in which the party consolidates some of its gains. Some members of the current delegation have toiled in the vineyard long past the point of giving up on any hope of running the state. With the help of the Democrats, who nominated a candidate who had never won a campaign on her own, then-Congressman Ehrlich and his team took advantage of the opening. Now he and his party have to get stronger in a state still dominated by Democrats.

New York will offer moments for the Marylanders to restate a claim of support from an essential segment of the Democratic base: the loyal African-American voter. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, one of the nation's highest ranking black public officials, will have a prominent speaking role. He may not be the equal of Barack Obama, the Democrats' keynoter from Illinois, but he'll be impressive. He represents a constant reminder for black voters in Maryland: Think about voting Republican; our party didn't take you for granted.

Mr. Steele represents another truth, a challenger for the GOP itself. Its bench - its rank of good new candidates - still needs to grow and deepen. Mr. Steele probably was not Mr. Ehrlich's first choice as running mate, and the party has similar weaknesses up and down the line. That will change if the Ehrlich-Steele team wins a second term and if the promise of its first victory can be realized.

There are other challenges.

The party has had success at raising money for the governor's race the previous two elections. Richard E. Hug, now a member of the University of Maryland System Board of Regents, has shown the wealthy givers that Republicans win. That showing should result in more fund raising success than the party has achieved so far, according to some party observers.

Voter registration remains a challenge as well, and there is not as much activity on that front as in earlier, less promising years. John Kane, the party's vocal chairman, will need to show more strength in that area as another close election is almost a certainty in 2006, when Mr. Ehrlich runs again.

Politics, though, is this party's surprising strong suit - much of that strength flowing from the Ehrlich inner circle. Democrats may be right on the major issue in Annapolis - slot machine gambling and how to pay for government - but they are a divided bunch with at least one of their leaders, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, cheering for Mr. Ehrlich.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a life-long Democrat, is another Ehrlich partisan.

In the close election atmosphere, Mr. Ehrlich is trumping his opposition. An outnumbered GOP needs a divided Democratic Party, and the prospects for that remain high.

Since the first months of his tenure, Mr. Ehrlich has shown himself to be as spoils-oriented as any Democratic predecessor. He's actually gone further than rewarding the long-term faithful. He recently gave a sweet patronage plum to the wife of Ehrlich-friendly radio talk-show host Ron Smith of WBAL. By all accounts, Mrs. Smith is an able person, but her job is a startling declaration of Governor Ehrlich's confidence. If he can endow the wife of a supporter so handsomely, he must feel secure indeed.

The governor's success in politics illuminates his greatest challenge: What sort of Maryland would he leave at the end of four and eight years? It's a wealthy state, fully capable of supporting public services, yet he wants to introduce slot machines.

Though the numbers have moved back and forth between approval and rejection, Marylanders may be with him on this one. He's rejected a referendum now, hoping to reserve the pro-slots momentum. He could get his new gaming and a second term in the same package. It's a bet the Democrats will have to cover.

All in all, if you're a Maryland Republican, there's something to celebrate in the Big Apple.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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