Primary races settled this week reflect the underlying divide in the Maryland's minority party, pitting Republicans who stand on conservative principle against those who are willing to be more pragmatic as the underdogs in a blue state.
In some cases the ideologues triumphed; in others the moderates squeaked out a victory. It's a push-and-pull that echoes fights dogging the Republican Party nationally.
In Frederick, a conservative delegate toppled the state Senate minority leader by accusing him of compromising with Democrats. On the Eastern Shore, the chair of the legislature's Tea Party Caucus lost his seat in part for defying the GOP establishment.
In Carroll, the county commissioner who was willing to go to jail for the right to pray at public meetings lost a primary challenge to more moderate candidate. And in Anne Arundel, a nail-biter for a County Council seat remains unresolved between a mainstream Republican and a candidate who belongs to the League of the South, a secessionist organization.
The persistent willingness to oust successful incumbents is a problem that sets Maryland's GOP apart from its dominant Democrats, said Don Norris, chair of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Democrats accommodate a wider range of viewpoints and "support.... their more conservative members," Norris said. "Republicans, on the other hand, eat their young."
Brian Griffiths, chair of the Maryland Young Republicans and member of party's state board, said three factions are fighting — and each has dominance in different parts of the state.
"You've got the mainstream conservative activists, and then you've got the tea party wing, and then you've got the establishment," said Griffiths, who also writes a political blog. "They're all wrestling for control of the party, and there's all these shifting allegiances depending on the race."
Republicans hold just one of Maryland's eight congressional seats and are 55 of the 188 state lawmakers in the General Assembly. The party faces a 2-1 registration disadvantage to Democrats, and has elected just one governor in the past generation.
Last year, Maryland GOP party chairman Alex X. Mooney relinquished his post and moved to West Virginia, where he won a primary congressional race last month. The tagline from his ads: "Alex Mooney came to West Virginia to live in freedom."
In Anne Arundel County last week, two strong Republican candidates fought a nasty battle for the county executive nomination. When state Del. Steve Schuh pulled out an establishment-backed victory over incumbent County Executive Laura Neuman, Neuman announced she was getting out of politics altogether — much to the chagrin of a grande dame of the state GOP.
"I was looking upon Laura as a bright young lady to give the Republican Party some pizazz," said Helen Delich Bentley, a former congresswoman from Baltimore County. Had Neuman won over critics who complained she had too few GOP credentials, Bentley said, Neuman would have been a top future contender for governor.
"What the hell is Republican enough?" said Bentley. "I don't want her to go into hiding. She's an asset to the party."
Bentley, however, isn't particularly discouraged. "The Republican Party is in no worse shape than it's always been in this state," she said.
The party's new executive director, Joe Cluster, said that despite a few isolated cases, most of the primary fights were due to unique local circumstances.
"Everyone wants to say there's this ideological fight with the conservatives against the establishment," Cluster said. "I just don't see it."
For example, Sen. Richard F. Colburn will end a 20-year run in the Maryland Senate after Del. Adelaide Eckardt beat him in Tuesday's primary, but the defeat came after Colburn's messy public divorce.
Other examples suggest a more conservative wing at war with the establishment.
In Anne Arundel, one-term incumbent Councilman Dick Ladd appears to have finished third in his primary after party insiders say Ladd promised no tax increases but then voted for the county budget.
As of Friday, the race for his seat was a virtual tie between former school board member Maureen Carr-York and newcomer Michael Anthony Peroutka, who was the Constitution Party's presidential nominee in 2004 and currently belongs to the League of the South. The latter affiliation landed Peroutka on the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of "extremist candidates."
In Carroll County, former firefighter Stephen Wantz defeated incumbent Commissioner Robin Frazier, who made national news by insisting on a Christian prayer before meetings despite a federal order to stop. Frazier's position was ultimately vindicated by the Supreme Court, but Wantz won in part by telling voters Frazier acted as a lightning rod at the expense of doing work for her constituents.
"They put up silly signs that said that I was the 'Democrat's choice,'" Wantz said. "I think that backfired on them because people are tired of the silly games."
Over in Cecil County, chair of the Tea Party Caucus and three-term Del. Mike Smigiel lost his seat in a crowded primary contest. While Smigiel concedes that several factors were at play in his race, he said that he lost establishment support because he was a libertarian willing to work with Democrats to decriminalize marijuana and pay for birth control in order to reduce the frequency of abortions.
"There are two parts to the party," Smigiel said. "You have one that puts the Constitution at the head of everything they do. You have another part of the party who puts the party ahead of everything, and they're the ones right now who are pulling the strings."
In Frederick County, an arch-conservative ousted the Senate minority leader. Del. Michael Hough went after Sen. David Brinkley for casting votes in favor of the state budget, even though Brinkley cast votes against the individual taxes the budget contained. Hough won, 68 percent to 32 percent.
The previous Senate minority leader, E.J. Pipkin, moved to Texas last year to pursue a second career in sports management. Pipkin's former chief of staff John Fiastro, who is also chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee, said he doesn't see the party's internal divisions as a problem.
"The tensions are a sign that we've got a healthy, growing party," he said. "If everyone was 'go along to get along,' that would scream of complacency."
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.
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