The Maryland Republican Party is weighing whether to open its primary elections to independent voters, a plan some envision delivering statewide victories that have largely eluded the party.
A contingent frustrated with consistent Republicans losses in top offices has convinced party leadership to study inviting unaffiliated voters to help pick GOP candidates as soon as 2014, tapping into the fastest-growing segment of Maryland's electorate.
"We've had one Republican governor since the 1960s," said John Fiastro Jr., chair of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee and a leader in the open primary camp. "Some would say that allowing independents to vote would be the death knell in our party. I would say with the kind of record we have, we should study every available option."
The idea has inflamed opposition in the party's more conservative ranks, whose members predict partisan shenanigans by Democrats and a dilution of Republican values if independent voters could participate in primaries.
"If you let non-Republicans in, then you're handing over the party," said Larry Helminiak, second vice president of the Maryland GOP. "Why turn the election over to them?"
Internal bickering accompanied the Maryland Republicans' decision to open the 2000 primary election to independents, a move the party did not widely advertise at the time and has not seriously revisited until now.
The division within Maryland comes as Republicans across the country, many stunned by President Barack Obama's re-election, also grapple with broadening their appeal and court minorities, women and young voters. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in March called the election a "wake-up call" and unveiled a 97-page "autopsy" report that concluded the party must grow its membership and remake its image as the "narrow-minded" party of "stuffy old men."
In Maryland, the discussion concerns both party identity and winning the numbers game. Democrats outnumber Republicans here 2-to-1. While both parties have steadily gained voters over the past decade, the relatively smaller ranks of independent voters have boomed.
Since 2001, elections officials saw an 83 percent increase in registered voters who don't associate with any political party, growing from 13 percent of the electorate to 17 percent. Republicans agree they need those independents – who number more than 630,000 — to cast a ballot in their favor if the party hopes to secure the governorship or other top state jobs.
"We obviously need them," said state GOP chairwoman Diana Waterman. "We aren't going to win even if every one of our Republicans show up to vote."
Waterman cast the deciding vote Saturday to move ahead with investigating opening the GOP primary, though she refused to divulge her personal opinion on the move.
Under state law, each party can open its primary to unaffiliated voters by notifying the election board six months in advance. Twenty states, including Maryland, restrict primaries to voters registered with a party, while 17 have completely open primaries and 13 have a combination, according to 2012 data compiled by the nonpartisan group FairVote.
Waterman said she plans to name a task force of seven to nine people to investigate how open Republican primaries have worked in other states where the GOP is in the minority. The study could lead to a vote at the party's convention this fall, she said.
If such a change were approved, Maryland's unaffiliated voters would be able to help pick from a growing field of Republicans contending for the governor's mansion next year, a prospect some gubernatorial candidates endorse and others shun.
"I love the idea," said gubernatorial hopeful Ron George, a GOP state delegate from Anne Arundel County. "The only exposure that young people get [to politics] are the negative ads the candidates throw at each other. Anything we can do to broaden that we should do."
Harford County Executive David Craig, the other Republican declared for the race, said he'll leave the decision to the party, but he thinks Republicans can and do win statewide when they put up a good candidate with strong ideas.
Craig said the change, particularly in the absence of a similar choice by Maryland's Democrats, leaves the potential for sabotage by Democratic-leaning independent voters picking the weakest Republican candidate for the general election.
Helminiak, the GOP board member, said he used a similar ploy and expects such insurrections if Republicans open their doors to independents. A self-described "hard-core conservative," Helminiak said he was a registered Democrat until 1992 so he could undercut the party.
"I voted for the worst candidate," he said. "I voted for Jesse Jackson for president. I voted for George Wallace in the primary."
In the past four decades, a Republican candidate has won the Maryland election for governor only once — Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2002.