Maryland local offices redden, even as state offices remain blue

  • David Marks, newly elected to the Baltimore County Council, still displays his campaign bumper sticker on his car.
David Marks, newly elected to the Baltimore County Council,… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
November 28, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

Less than a month after bruising top-of-ticket losses on Election Day, Maryland Republicans have quickly discovered life after Ehrlich, seating a new lineup of local elected officials on the party's bench and fielding a surprisingly diverse range of candidates for state chairman.

The resounding defeat of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who was seeking a return as governor, solidified Maryland's standing as among the most heavily Democratic states. Gov. Martin O'Malley coasted to re-election, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski easily won a fifth term. Ehrlich's loss also signaled the end of an era for the state's beleaguered minority party, which for better than a decade was largely defined and dominated by the telegenic former congressman who in 2002 was selected as the state's first Republican governor in a generation.

But in a little-noticed election night accomplishment, Republicans picked up three dozen local government and courthouse positions across the state, including sought-after seats in Baltimore and Frederick counties. When those officials are sworn in next month, 15 of the state's 23 counties will be run at the local level by Republicans. Nine of those won't have a single Democrat in their governing body -- a phenomenon Republican blogger Richard Cross described as "Maryland's red underbelly."

And after Republicans gained strength in Congress this year, some activists are sensing a renewed purpose for the party and see the new era as a chance to become a more powerful underdog in Maryland. The state party will choose a new leader early next month, and half a dozen people with a range of backgrounds and expertise are in the mix.

Don Murphy, a Republican campaign operative and former delegate from Baltimore County, said his party should be eager to move beyond Ehrlich. The party, he said, "needs to be a chorus of opposition, not a rock star with backup."

"We turned a pretty good election into a defeat," Murphy said, describing how Ehrlich's loss overshadowed the local gains. "It's our own fault. We focused all our attention like a laser on one person, one position. And we've got to stop doing that."

One way ahead, said Murphy and other Republicans, is the selection of a new party leader with fresh ideas.

At least three candidates have announced they'll seek the chairmanship at the convention next month in Annapolis, and several others are seriously considering a run.

Among the hopefuls are William Campbell, the former Amtrak and U.S Coast Guard financial executive who lost a bid this fall for Maryland comptroller; Mary Kane, a former secretary of state who was Ehrlich's running mate; and Mike Esteve, chairman of the Maryland College Republicans.

Eric Wargotz, a physician and outgoing Queen Anne's County commissioner who challenged Mikulski this year, is considering a run for chairman. He said the amount of interest in the party election "shows people are stepping up to take the helm."

"Republicans in Maryland have surprised a lot of observers following the election," he said. "The scuttlebutt was, 'Republicans are shattered. Republicans are destroyed.' We're showing them, 'Oh, no. Not at all.'"

Still, some of the chairman contenders said, the party must acknowledge its new chapter. Republicans did so well across the country and locally in Maryland, yet Ehrlich lost by 14 percentage points -- more than twice the margin of defeat as four years ago in a far worse national climate for the GOP.

"The fact that Bob Ehrlich has gracefully stepped aside is not only appropriate but necessary," Esteve said. "The Republican Party can psychologically close the chapter of the last 12 years and move unburdened into the future."

That view is one reason, Murphy said, that Kane's bid isn't universally well-received. "She's viewed as a continuation of Ehrlich World," he said. Kane's husband, John Kane, served as party chairman while Ehrlich was governor.

All but the urban areas

While leadership at the party is sorting itself out, Republicans are bubbling up from below.

By the party's count, in addition to picking up six seats in the 141-person House of Delegates, two dozen new Republicans will fill the ranks of local boards of commission and county councils.

Some of them won over voters by presenting themselves as moderates, while others appeared to be swept to power by the up-ticket congressional contests, political observers said.

"The best hope for the party is in the local offices," said Chris Cavey, a former Baltimore County Republican chairman. "On a county basis, we do very well. We rule everything but the urban areas, positively."

Local elected Republicans can be groomed to run for higher government positions and statewide offices, including governor, said Maryland Republican Party Chairwoman Audrey Scott, who is completing a one-year term. This year's Election Day, she said, "has given us the farm team that we so desperately need."

Cavey said the local officials could influence Maryland politics in a broader way.

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