Strength of Md. Tea Party to be tested Tuesday

Conservative movement weaker here than in other states

September 12, 2010|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

POTOMAC — — Meeting at a swim and tennis club in this tony Washington suburb, the Montgomery County Tea Party activists demanded answers from Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s pick for lieutenant governor.

What will the Republican former governor do to hunt down illegal immigrants if he wins in November? Which government programs will he cut to pay for promised tax cuts? What business regulations will he lift?

And the most heated query: Why, the small crew pressed lieutenant gubernatorial hopeful Mary Kane during their meeting last week, won't Ehrlich debate his conservative GOP primary challenger?

"Do you see why ignoring a person like Brian Murphy, who is supported by Tea Party people, would turn off Tea Party people?" growled Maryland Society of Patriots founder William Hale.

When the votes are counted in the Republican primary Tuesday, Ehrlich will learn just how many Tea Party supporters he might have alienated. The first Republican to win the governor's office in Maryland since Spiro Agnew is expected to sail to victory over Murphy — the only question being the size of the margin.

In other states this primary season, it's been a different story. In Alaska last month, Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller rode Tea Party support and an endorsement by Sarah Palin to a surprise victory over Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP convention. In Utah earlier this year, Tea Party activists helped oust Republican Sen. Bob Bennett at the party's state convention.

Tea Party-backed candidates have also defeated establishment candidates for senator in Colorado and Kentucky and governor in South Carolina. Now in Delaware, the national Tea Party Express is pouring money into the campaign of Christine O'Donnell, a conservative activist who is challenging moderate Republican Rep. Mike Castle for the Senate seat long occupied by Vice President Joe Biden.

But Maryland, a generally liberal state with some deeply conservative voters, has seen comparatively little of such activity. Judging by the polls and campaign finance reports, even Palin's endorsement of Murphy earlier this summer did little to change the political landscape.

How has the state's Republican establishment managed to avoid a Tea Party challenge?

Conservative activists have a simple answer: Give us time.

They say their focus is on the local level, where some are threatening traditional GOP candidates. They want representation on central committees and in the House of Delegates. Their mission now it is not to rattle the GOP establishment, they say, but to educate voters.

"It took us 100 years to get here. It will take 100 years to get back," said Jackie Gregory, a founding member of the Cecil County Patriots, which counts 300 conservative members.

"People who are involved now cannot go back to the way they were. Whether it takes two years, four years or 20 years, we're going to keep going."

Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, is hardly friendly territory for conservatives.

"Tea Party organization is clearly strongest in Republican red states — the redder the better," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

There is likely a more specific reason that the movement has not posed a threat to the establishment: Ehrlich's dominance in Republican circles means many of Maryland's most sophisticated conservative activists and donors already have forged deep ties with him.

"A lot of allegiances were made eight years ago. Those are hard to break," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., an Eastern Shore Republican. "I think we are a bit of an anomaly here. A lot of people have worked on behalf of Ehrlich."

The state's largest Tea Party organization, the 23,000-member Americans for Prosperity, is run by a former Ehrlich fundraiser, Dave Schwartz. The group is legally barred from endorsing politicians, so it has not officially weighed in on the governor's race — or any other contest. But its message is remarkable similar to the one promoted by Ehrlich.

They criticize spending decisions by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has raised taxes and accepted federal money to balance the state budget, but not Ehrlich, who used similar methods while in office from 2003 to 2007.

The Tea Party movement grew out of rallies in Washington and around the country beginning in early 2009, shortly after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, to protest the bank bailout bill, government spending generally and taxes.

Marylanders, energized by events in nearby Washington, began to organize local groups as forums in which they could continue to discussing their ideas. The Hagerstown Tea Party group, for example, plans a series of classes on the U.S. Constitution this fall.

Supporters say there is no single Tea Party organization, but rather a movement organized around common beliefs in smaller government, lower taxes and greater freedom.

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