A tale of two chairmen

Our view: Mooney is in at the state GOP and Steele is on the ropes at the Republican National Committee because of money

December 14, 2010

Just as one Maryland politician was elected to head the state Republican Party, another is in danger of losing his job running the national GOP. The simple thread that connects outgoing state Sen. Alex X. Mooney's election as chairman of the state party and former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's uphill battle for a second term as head of the national party is money. Mr. Mooney laid out a plan for raising gobs of it, and Mr. Steele has seen fundraising lag and expenses rise at party headquarters. In politics, money matters, and more than Mr. Mooney's focus on conservative political ideology or Mr. Steele's high-profile gaffes, that explains the rise of the former and the fall of the latter. But in both cases, Republicans are paying a price for shoring up their finances.

It's understandable that the voters at the state Republican convention in Annapolis last weekend skipped over Mr. Mooney's chief rival for the job, Mary Kane, who was former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s running mate this year. Although she would have been a capable and articulate leader, it makes sense that the state party would want to turn away from the Ehrlich cabal that has been running the show for the last eight years — and not just because of Mr. Ehrlich's recent thumping by Gov. Martin O'Malley. Even when Mr. Ehrlich was governor and enjoying strong approval ratings, he failed to translate his popularity into gains for the state party. Democrats' voter registration advantage only grew during his administration, and his party actually lost seats in the legislature when he ran for re-election in 2006.

But that doesn't mean Mr. Mooney is the right man to broaden the GOP's appeal.

Mr. Mooney pledged to Republican convention-goers in Annapolis last weekend that he would help the party win more elections by focusing on core conservative principles. "Conservative wins," he said, apparently without irony, quite a feat for a three-term incumbent who just a month ago lost a reliably Republican district to a moderate Democrat. Mr. Mooney indicated that he subscribes to a belief, common among a subset of Maryland Republicans, that the reason the state's voters keep electing Democrats, and often liberal ones at that, is that they find the Republicans insufficiently conservative.

By this logic, we might imagine that a 15-point majority of Maryland voters concluded that Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. didn't take a hard enough line on border security in his recent run to recapture the governor's post and so, instead, opted for the guy who repeatedly referred to illegal immigrants as "new Americans."

The reason conservatives don't win races for statewide office or for swing districts isn't that the candidates aren't conservative enough or don't explain themselves clearly enough. It's that, for a variety of historical, cultural, demographic and economic reasons, a consistent majority of Maryland voters is at least somewhat left of center, especially on social issues. Encouraging candidates to spend more time talking about the issues on which a majority of voters disagrees — such as abortion and gay rights — is not a recipe for success.

It also raises the possibility of a renewal of the ideological turf battles that so weakened the state party during the chairmanship of James Pelura, who was forced out a year ago. His replacement, Audrey Scott, did not run for election to a full term as chairwoman, but she did an admirable job of getting the party out of debt and of establishing a big tent philosophy. That was the right approach. If the state Republican Party is going to succeed, it won't be by imposing ideological litmus tests. It will be by recruiting people with new ideas for how to make the state a better place.

For all his faults, that's exactly what Mr. Steele represented on the national level. He brought obvious diversity to the Republican Party in that he's African-American — how much that played a role in his election, just after Democrats produced the nation's first African-American president, is impossible to know — but he also brought a more meaningful diversity of ideas. When he was elected chairman, Mr. Steele promised to change the impression that Republicans are "a party that doesn't care, a party that's insensitive, a party that is unconcerned about minorities, a party that's unconcerned about the lives and the expectations and dreams of average Americans."

As a candidate for office in Maryland, he did that not by spouting talking points about taxes or regulation but by looking for ways that conservative principles could be mustered to help people who needed a leg up. On the first day of his U.S. Senate campaign, for example, he spent time at a drug treatment center touting his support for more adult education programs — and then later in the day hectored a group of businessmen to hire the recovering addicts he had met, lest the gap between the haves and have-nots grow too wide. At a time when the Republican Party is threatening filibusters to save tax breaks for the rich, that's a refreshing message.

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