Picking up the pieces

November 20, 2006

With the loss of the governor's office and a handful of seats in a General Assembly that was already overwhelmingly Democratic, it's understandable that Maryland Republicans are feeling blue since the election. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s defeat is a particularly disappointing moment for party loyalists, many of whom labored a generation or more before finally witnessing a GOP governor in Annapolis. But while the setback is significant, it needn't be long-term.

Maryland Republicans have simply returned to where they were just eight years ago when Gov. Parris N. Glendening was elected to a second term, sweeping past Baltimore County's Ellen R. Sauerbrey, 55 percent to 45 percent. In that same election, Republicans lost six seats in the House of Delegates. Four years later, it was quite a different story: Mr. Ehrlich was elected to the state's top post, ending a 36-year political drought for his party, which also gained tremendous clout in the State House.

Such swings of the electorate are common enough. The big problem in Maryland is that finding a candidate who is popular within his party but also moderate enough to attract Democratic voters in a general election is likely to become more difficult. This is no longer the party of Constance A. Morella, the liberal Republican congresswoman from Montgomery County who lost her seat in the same election that propelled Mr. Ehrlich to the governorship.

But what has worked for the Republicans nationally - tough talk and a socially conservative agenda - doesn't fly here, at least not in statewide contests. It's telling that the two biggest successes for Maryland Republicans this year, the election of county executives in Anne Arundel and Harford, represent the triumph of can-do pragmatists. Neither John R. Leopold nor David R. Craig could ever be considered a zealot. The question is, will others follow their lead?

As if on cue, Mr. Leopold has shown his intent to govern Anne Arundel in a bipartisan fashion. On Thursday, he named Democrat Dennis Callahan, a former mayor of Annapolis, as his chief of staff. He also plans to retain a substantial number of department heads from his Democratic predecessor, Janet S. Owens.

And Republican legislators seem to be taking notice as well. House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell is facing a possible challenge from within his ranks by delegates who aren't happy with his bomb-throwing style. Sen. Andrew P. Harris may be foiled in his bid to become Senate minority leader for similar reasons.

Over the past dozen years, Republicans have shown they can raise money, run credible races and even win a governorship in a state that is dominated by Democrats. Much can change in four years. The political tsunami could just as easily run the opposite way. But the unique challenge for Republicans here will be to field candidates with a Maryland sensibility, particularly on social issues.

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