GOP's next step is focus of caucus

December 02, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

The Maryland Republican Party, battered by severe losses in November's election, meets today to choose new leadership as members struggle over how to avoid slipping into another 30-year stretch of political futility.

The retirement of party Chairman John Kane after a four-year term, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s failure to be re-elected, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's defeat in his run for the U.S. Senate and the losses of several incumbent legislators have exposed a rift between those party faithful who see the need for no more than minor adjustments and others who blame the defeats on a leadership that needs a total overhaul.

But many activists from both camps and from across the state agree on one thing: Four years after capturing the governor's mansion for the first time in a generation, the Maryland GOP has no obvious champion who can bring it back to prominence. Even under the best of circumstances, they acknowledge, the party might not be able to reassert itself for years to come.

"After Governor Ehrlich and Lieutenant Governor Steele, our bench is pretty thin on potential statewide candidates," said John Dunlap, chairman of the Washington County Central Committee. "We need to start developing some leaders who can win in this state."

But deciding who could best develop a new generation of candidates, raise funds and energize the party's base looks likely to spark an intense debate among the hundreds of activists scheduled to attend today's caucus in Annapolis.

Members of central committees from Baltimore City and every county in the state have been meeting since yesterday as part of the party's annual convention.

After every gubernatorial election, the convention includes a vote for new party leaders, who are chosen for four-year terms in an electoral system that gives weight to counties based on how many registered Republicans live there. Jim Pelura, an Anne Arundel County veterinarian, and Chris Cavey, the chairman of the Baltimore County GOP, are generally considered the favorites for chairman and vice chairman, respectively, because they have the backing of many current party leaders, including Kane, Ehrlich and Steele.

Pelura's opponent is John White, an Anne Arundel businessman who ran unsuccessfully for Congress this year and is now trying for party chairman.

One camp within the party, which is generally supporting Pelura and Cavey, sees this year's election defeats less as an indictment of the state GOP's strategy than as the result of a national tide that swept Democrats into office from coast to coast.

"You've got to realize that national issues overtook us in Maryland, and so I think that we did as well as we could as a state party," said Joyce Terhes, the party's national committeewoman, who is supporting Pelura and Cavey. "If it had not been this year, if it had not been the national situation, I think we would have picked up the seats we were anticipating picking up."

Others say the national mood alone doesn't explain what happened in Maryland. They say the party's base stayed home because the GOP leadership ignored grassroots politics in favor of big-ticket fundraisers, mass mailings, TV ads and top-down strategy.

This second group largely hasn't coalesced around candidates, but it is looking for new blood at the party's helm.

"We have to examine why so many Republicans stayed home. The popular reason is the national situation, Iraq and President Bush. I frankly don't believe that," said Larry Helminiak, the chairman of the Carroll County Central Committee, who said he hasn't committed to any candidates.

"If someone gets up and says, `Please vote for me because I will continue the philosophies that we've had for the past few years,' and someone gets up and says, `I think we need to examine why Republicans didn't go to the polls, and we have to be more relevant to those people,' then I'll vote for that person."

Many Republican activists now say the one comfort they can draw from their situation is that they've been here before. The GOP was effectively powerless in Annapolis for 36 years before Ehrlich was elected, and even the more pessimistic in the party think it won't take that long again.

Moreover, some said that no matter what happens today, it's bound to be less unsettling than the party's 1994 convention, when members had to select leaders even as their gubernatorial nominee, Ellen Sauerbrey, was still waging her eventually unsuccessful challenge to the results of an election against Parris N. Glendening. She lost to Glendening by fewer than 6,000 votes.

That said, the GOP now has to go through a natural transition, from a time when the governor effectively chose the chairman, dictated the strategy for the party and led the opposition to Democrats to a time when the chairman will have to take on much more of that responsibility. What will happen when hundreds of party leaders get together to decide how to do that, activists said, is anybody's guess.

"Conventions are tough things to predict," Kane said.

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