Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Southern Maryland, met recently with The Baltimore Sun's editorial board to discuss the future of the state Republican Party. There are plenty of issues on which he and the board have, historically, disagreed, but much of the talk was focused on one area in which we are on the same page: The need for a robust debate in the state over politics and policy. (In fact, we ran an editorial last week cheering the entry of Republican Michael Pappas in the gubernatorial race and encouraging others to follow suit for that very reason.)
Despite the loss of the governor's mansion in 2006, Mr. O'Donnell is fairly sanguine about the overall trajectory of the Maryland Republican Party. He chalks up former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s loss to a national Democratic wave (I think this is only partly true, but it certainly had an impact) and notes that even though Republicans lost some seats in the legislature, their numbers there are still fairly high by historical standards.
I asked him which he thinks would be better for the party: taking back the governor's mansion in 2010 or picking up legislative seats, county executive slots and other elected offices. He said winning the governor's race would be important because Maryland has such a strong executive. But he said picking up seats in the legislature would be just about as good. Another 4-8 seats in the Senate and 8-12 in the House would still leave the party in the distinct minority in both chambers but could result in a significant shift in the makeup of the standing committees, which is where most of the real work gets done, he said.
"Just a small shift in the numbers on the committees could make a big difference in terms of policy," he said.
Sounds good, but in practice, it might not work out that way. Most likely, any pick-up in seats for Republicans would come at the expense of Democrats representing conservative districts. In the past, that has occasionally backfired. For example, the defeat of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. by Republican LeRoy E. Myers resulted in a more liberal, anti-slots leader in that chamber. And the defeat of Sen. Walter Baker, a Democrat, by Republican E.J. Pipkin meant that Baker, an Eastern Shore conservative, was replaced as chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee by Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County liberal.
It strikes me that rather than seeking tactical advantages, what the Republican Party could use is a clear, tailored message on a few key issues that resonate in suburban and urban areas. The party faces a difficult task, to be sure, because the rural areas it increasingly represents tend to be far more conservative on guns, abortion and other issues than the state's big population centers, and the voters in those districts want to see the party aggressively pursue them. But to make progress, the party is probably going to need standard-bearers who represent a viewpoint closer to the political center.
It's no coincidence that Mr. Ehrlich, a pro-choice Republican from the Baltimore suburbs, was the party's first governor in a generation. He represented an alternative to the Democrats but didn't come off as far right, especially in his 2002 race. The GOP's problem was that it didn't have enough Ehrlich-types hanging out in county councils or legislative seats to back him up or step in when he lost.