GOP, stymied in Howard, seeks way back

Republican future uncertain in county that has grown bluer

November 11, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

After a dozen years of election frustration and failure, Republicans in Howard County are looking for a way back to political prominence.

Things have only gotten worse since the GOP lost the county executive's post to Democrat James N. Robey in 1998. In the Nov. 2 election, in which many Democrats elsewhere were defeated amid strong anti-incumbent sentiment, Ken Ulman was re-elected to a second term as county executive. Democrats also hold four of the five County Council seats, plus eight of 11 General Assembly seats from Howard, keeping the party in control of the county's House and Senate delegations. Even Kay Hartleb, the Republican register of wills for 24 years, was trailing Democrat Byron MacFarlane by just over 200 votes Wednesday night in unofficial returns, though a few provisional ballots remained uncounted.

The effect was demoralizing, and it has left some Republican candidates stunned and uncertain what to do.

"I'm really surprised to see the results across the state," said Kyle Lorton, a first-time state Senate candidate who lost badly in his bid to unseat Robey. "I really felt I had a shot to win," Lorton said. "It was really frustrating."

Republican Party stalwarts aired similar concerns.

"I'm still scratching my head. When are people going to wake up?" asked Dennis R. Schrader, who lost his challenge to Democrat Jen Terrasa in a bid to recapture his former District 3 County Council seat. "My focus for 23 years has been trying to make Maryland a two-party state."

Party leaders are particularly puzzled about the lower-than-usual turnout, with about 57 percent of county residents voting instead of the roughly 62 percent who voted four years ago. But incoming county Republican Party Chairwoman Loretta Shields said one thing is clear.

"Apparently in Howard County, our message of lower taxes doesn't resonate with people," she said. Shields said she ran into several voters in Highland during the campaign who said, "Don't reduce taxes. We've got the best schools here."

"'Lower taxes' are not the two words to use here," Shields said. She and departing GOP Chairwoman Joan Becker said they hope the influx of defense jobs over the next few years as part of the military base realignment and closure process will bring more voters who will lean Republican.

That seems to belie the confident message Republicans were broadcasting after serious losses in 2006, when they said national antipathy toward then-President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans boosted local Democrats. That's when Ulman became county executive and Republicans lost a key state Senate seat to Robey, while the fourth council seat went to Democrat Courtney Watson.

"I think four years from now, we could see a very different election," state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman had said in November 2006.

"I'm very confident in the incompetence of the Democrats," said then-county GOP Chairman Brian Harlin.

Republican Del. Warren E. Miller said "runaway spending" and higher state and local taxes would drive Howard voters back to his party. None of their predictions came true.

Republicans locally didn't lose more ground, but they didn't gain any either, leaving just four party members in policy-making offices out of 17 elected positions in the county. As a result of their dominance locally and in Annapolis, Democrats will control redistricting, the redrawing of congressional, legislative and County Council district boundary lines that follows every census.

Instead of gaining the five state Senate seats statewide that Kittleman repeatedly told voters that Republicans needed to win a seat at the decision-making table, the GOP lost two more members, including Sen. Alex X. Mooney of Frederick, one of the Senate's most conservative members. In Howard, Kittleman won easily, but so did Democrats Robey and Majority Leader Edward J. Kasemeyer.

Kittleman said money is a big factor helping Democrats. "The Democrats have been able to convince businesses to support them," which is a statewide problem for the GOP, he said.

"I was pretty much frustrated," said Del. Gail H. Bates, one of two Republican members of the House of Delegates from Howard. "I thought we had some of the best candidates we ever had."

Del. Warren E. Miller, her GOP colleague in the House, said the party will be back.

"There's only one way to go. We grow," he said. "We didn't lose seats. We held our ground. We'll come back in four years. I'm an optimist."

Shields and Becker said they are looking for answers in the low turnout.

"What caused people not to vote? There's something wrong," Shields said. "My frustration is, we had 45,000 votes for [Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.], but there are 56,000 registered Republicans in the county."

She said she wants to send out a survey asking simple questions: "Where were you? Why?"

"We're asking a lot of whys," she said.

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