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Maryland ballot referendums offer a GOP reality check

This was the year of the referendum in Maryland, and given how things went at the polls, we're not likely to see a repeat any time soon. The success of all the three laws that were petitioned to referendum exposes the fallacy of Maryland Republicans' notion that they could build support for themselves and check the supposed excesses of the Democratic Party by bringing controversial measures to the voters.

When Maryland Republicans, led by freshman Del. Neil Parrott of Washington County, succeeded in putting the Dream Act on the ballot, state GOP Chairman Alex Mooney called it a "game changer" and a counterweight to Democrats who "think that they can do what they want." When Republicans got the congressional maps on the ballot, Del. Steve Schuh, an Anne Arundel County Republican, called it a "major change to our democracy in Maryland," adding, "we have an arrogant majority." Republicans openly mused about the idea of putting one or more of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly's acts on the ballot every year.

But as it turns out, the Democratic majority in Annapolis was pretty well in tune with the voters when it came to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, same-sex marriage and the redrawing of the state's congressional districts.

Maryland voters approved same-sex marriage by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent — the exact same margin by which it passed the House and Senate. Maryland voters approved the congressional district map, 63 percent to 37 percent. The vote in the legislature: 68 percent to 32 percent. On the Dream Act, the voters were actually a bit to the left of the legislature. That measure passed easily at the ballot box, 58 percent to 42 percent. In the legislature, it was 55 percent to 45 percent.

What should be particularly troubling to the GOP was that the votes on the referendums, if anything, suggested that they couldn't even count on their own base when it came to these issues. Same-sex marriage passed easily in the reliably Democratic jurisdictions of Montgomery County and Baltimore City, and in Baltimore and Howard counties, which had traditionally been seen as swing jurisdictions. But it also passed in traditionally Republican Frederick and Anne Arundel counties — in the case of Anne Arundel, by more than the overall statewide margin. Geographical support for the Dream Act was even broader, and virtually every jurisdiction in the state supported the congressional map.

That last issue was the one that most clearly showed the weakness of the Republicans' referendum strategy. Maryland's vote on same-sex marriage had the potential to be (and in fact was) a watershed moment in gay rights because no other state had ever approved marriage equality at the ballot box. The petition drive and campaign were largely organized and funded by national organizations trying to prevent that. The Dream Act that Maryland passed was the strictest form of the law in any state — it imposes more restrictions on those who would take advantage of it than the law Texas Gov. Rick Perry defended during the Republican presidential primaries. Moreover, it was on the ballot during an election when exit polls found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe undocumented immigrants should be offered the chance to apply for legal status.

But on the congressional maps, the Republicans actually found support among some left-leaning groups like Common Cause and a handful of Democratic elected officials, including Comptroller Peter Franchot. The trouble is, it was an issue that required a great deal of voter education and outreach. If the ballot had included a picture of the state's convoluted maps, that would have been one thing, but the text of the question sounded perfectly innocuous: "Establishes the boundaries for the State's eight United States Congressional Districts based on recent census figures, as required by the United States Constitution."

Using web tools Mr. Parrott developed, Republicans were able to gather the 53,000 valid signatures that were necessary to put the referendum on the ballot, but they lacked the capacity to mount an effective campaign, and the effort failed. That will no doubt make it more difficult to muster the volunteer enthusiasm necessary to put any future laws on the ballot.

The lesson here for the GOP is that Maryland is not a conservative state, and there is not a silent majority that disapproves of things like the Dream Act. At the same time, there are instances, like the congressional map, when Annapolis Democrats really do overreach. But unless Republicans groom leaders who resonate with a broad swath of the state, and unless they develop their organization, they won't be able to do anything about it.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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