This week's resignation of James Pelura as chairman of the Maryland Republican Party offers the struggling organization an opportunity for a fresh start this fall. At least that's the cheeriest way to look at it. Mr. Pelura proved to be a divisive figure within the state GOP, and even his supporters came to acknowledge that rescuing the party required change at the top.
Clearly, "rescue" is not too strong a term for what Mr. Pelura's successor will need to do. Since Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. lost his bid for a second term as governor in 2006, the state GOP has been foundering, not only financially but in voter registration and candidate recruitment as well.
That would be bad enough, but in Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-1 margin, it's a potential disaster. The Republican presence in the state legislature is already modest. Reduce it further, and the notion of a two-party system would seem downright laughable.
And make no mistake, that's not good for democracy with a small "d" in Maryland. No political party has a lock on good ideas, and the loss of viable minority can only stifle debate and dissent, concentrate power in the hands of a few, and foster corruption - that's as true today as it was in 16th-century Florence.
Mr. Pelura's critics charged that he was too doctrinaire in his views and too often (and too openly) critical of Republicans in elected office whom he deemed not Republican enough. Lawmakers in Annapolis groused over what they saw as attempts to dictate policy to them.
The party's most pressing problem, however, may simply be one of economics. It has spent two years teetering on the brink of financial collapse and still owes former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele's campaign account $75,000 for repayment of an improper contribution.
For Republicans, the good news is that all this upheaval is happening now and not next year. Central committee members will have a chance to select a new chairman in mid-November, which should give the party time to mount a credible effort in 2010.
Traditionally, the party out of power in Washington does well in off-year elections. In Maryland, where balancing the state budget required raising taxes, Republicans would seem to have opportunities in swing districts as well - if there's an organization left to offer that alternative.
Nevertheless, it will take more than the efforts of a solitary person, no matter how well-qualified, to unify a party struggling with its own identity. That problem became apparent in 2008 when longtime GOP Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest was branded a liberal and ousted in a particularly ugly 1st District primary.
That episode underscored the fractious nature of the Maryland GOP, with rural and religious conservatives often at odds with their moderate and suburban counterparts. Mr. Ehrlich has played a role here, too, and he has his supporters and detractors within the party hierarchy. His unwillingness to commit to a course of action in 2010 - chiefly whether to run for governor again - has not been helpful to the cause of party unity.
If the next party chairman insists on ideological purity, he or she would no doubt find enthusiastic supporters in certain circles but would also be condemning Republicans to a path only deeper into Maryland's political wilderness. Barry Goldwater may have thought extremism to be no vice, but inclusiveness is a lot more helpful when trying to rebuild a struggling political party.