Internecine strife just when Maryland GOP doesn't need it

December 09, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

Political lore holds that Republicans eat their young.

They find ways to undermine their own talent, stepping on the ambitions of promising newcomers.

Members of both major parties engage in this sort of political cannibalism, no doubt. It's just more noticeable with Republicans because, at least in Maryland, there aren't as many of them. You'd expect more respect, given the stakes.

Come to think of it, the young can be just as bloodthirsty, dining out on their elders.

In states such as Maryland, given over historically to Democrats, the fratricidal impulse can be difficult to satisfy.

Only two of the eight Maryland members of the House of Representatives are Republicans, and the last GOP senator from Maryland was Charles McC. Mathias, who was invited out by a party critic who then called him "a liberal swine." A civil rights and women's rights proponent, Mr. Mathias learned how to win in a Democratic state.

It's not an easy lesson to learn. Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is the best recent example. He served one term and then lost to Gov. Martin O'Malley last year.

Mr. Ehrlich finds himself now at the helm of a party that is all but busted financially. Its store of political talent is not much deeper. And if there is an inclination to tread carefully until stability returns, it is being shattered in the 1st Congressional District.

Two of the party's legislative leaders are about to tangle with each other as candidates for Congress in the Republican primary. Sens. E. J. Pipkin of Queen Anne's County and Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County say they will run for the seat now held by Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.

Mr. Ehrlich has involved himself in this race on the side of Senator Harris. He has done this, no doubt, because he believes the cerebral Mr. Harris will make a good congressman.

As politics would have it, though, there is another dimension to the partnership. It's called payback.

Congressman Gilchrest opposed the ill-fated slot machine gambling plan espoused by the former governor - this after Mr. Ehrlich endorsed him for re-election. Moreover, since slots were not a federal issue, Mr. Gilchrest might easily have stayed out of the discussion.

Mr. Gilchrest, though, has never seemed much taken with political protocol. His approach to public life has always been on the independent side. Mr. Ehrlich apparently finds that a less-than-acceptable justification. Thus, he has done what he can to support Mr. Harris, including efforts to find other Republican leaders who might sign on to the Harris campaign.

The Republican challengers, Mr. Pipkin and Mr. Harris, would have had more hope of winning were they the only challengers. With both in the race, they are likely to split the anti-Gilchrest vote if there is one, and Mr. Gilchrest wins again.

So this may be one of those races where the contenders see little hope of winning. They may simply be placeholders - for themselves. Should Mr. Gilchrest decide to retire (there are always rumors to that effect in politics), a potential replacement would like to stake a claim.

Mr. Harris was the first in. But Mr. Pipkin may wish to preserve his options. He lost in a bid for the U.S. Senate to the incumbent Democrat, Barbara A. Mikulski, but he has earned a measure of respect as a public man of finance.

Both men may fancy themselves more conservative than Mr. Gilchrest and therefore a better fit for the conservative Eastern Shore.

This could be a miscalculation. The Shore has also been known as a place that cherishes the kind of quirky independence Mr. Gilchrest has represented.

He may or may not have known his position would create enduring unhappiness, the wrath of a former governor and a three-way primary. Apparently it wouldn't have mattered either way.

Some Republicans (and Democrats) may simply be indigestible.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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