Ehrlich's stock tumbles, along with his party's

November 23, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

A poisonous brew of revenge, ideology and personal ambition leaves former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his party reeling. With Mr. Ehrlich's assistance, the GOP lost half its already diminished representation in statewide public office. Any notion that he could be a kingmaker - or re-establish his own credentials - seemed mere fantasy after the ballots were counted.

Going into Election 2008, Republicans had a pair of House members. In the recent past it had four, and in the 1980s a U.S. senator. With Mr. Ehrlich's defeat by Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2006, the GOP had but two members in statewide office: Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland's 6th District and the 1st District's Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a moderate with crossover appeal who represented the Eastern Shore and parts of Baltimore and Harford counties. Both were almost certain to be re-elected. Then came state Sen. Andy Harris, a doctrinaire conservative willing to wage a negative campaign. He defeated Mr. Gilchrest in a bitter primary. Chief among his backers was Mr. Ehrlich, apparently hoping to make a statement of his continuing electoral strength. And to even a score.

Mr. Gilchrest had opposed his slot machine gambling proposal. It was time for payback. Mr. Harris looked like a strong challenger in a usually conservative district. But Mr. Harris' tactics were not a winner. And he encountered an unexpectedly adept and well-financed challenger in Frank M. Kratovil Jr., the Queen Anne's County state's attorney.

The former governor, not himself a rigid ideologue, looked as if he had helped to engineer a grievous loss for his party and himself. If he couldn't show strength in the 1st District - where he had won by 67 percent in his losing race with Mr. O'Malley - where could he show it? Sen. John McCain was a clear winner in the district this year.

He and Mr. Harris lost, and their party is left to put the best face on it.

"I think this is a seat the Democrats have rented," said David R. Craig, the Harford County executive. Mr. Craig supported Mr. Gilchrest in the GOP primary, rebuffing Mr. Ehrlich's effort to recruit him for Mr. Harris. But he then supported Mr. Harris in the general election. He thinks Mr. Ehrlich can rebound from the loss. "It's not being defeated. It's how you handle defeat," he said.

State Sen. David R. Brinkley agrees, but he says the party might not have suffered so much had it not been for the overreaching of some GOP members. "The district is Republican. John McCain won it by 20 points. There is no reason why it was close. It was a safe Republican seat. The overzealousness by some in the party gave it to the Democrat," he said, apportioning the extra zeal to Mr. Ehrlich as well as Mr. Harris.

And the future? "There's a wound," he said. "Is it fatal? I think it's far from fatal, but when [Mr. Ehrlich] violates his own rule - incumbent protection - it doesn't stand him in good stead."

Senator Harris said he knew the race was lost when he saw a truck with a bumper sticker for McCain-Palin on one side and one for Mr. Kratovil on the other side.

Meanwhile, the GOP's best recent electoral performance may have been the losing U.S. Senate race run by former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele against Benjamin L. Cardin in 2006. Mr. Steele, former chairman of the GOP in Maryland, bids now to be national chairman of his party.

If he wins the rebuilding job, he could point to Maryland as an illustration of the task at hand.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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