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For Maryland Republicans, new messenger, same message

Our view: Changing GOP leaders isn't going to give Md. the two-party system it needs

12:15 PM EDT, May 2, 2013

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Maryland's House Republicans decided this week to jettison Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell from the leadership of their caucus on the grounds that a new messenger is needed to revitalize the party's prospects and pick up seats in the 2014 election. We wish new Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke and new Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga the best of luck; Maryland is better when it has two functioning political parties. But color us skeptical that rearranging the deck chairs in the House GOP caucus is going to accomplish much.

Mr. Kipke, who represents Anne Arundel County, said the change was needed because the party hasn't been good enough at getting its message out.

Really?

Who, exactly, is unaware that the Maryland Republican Party opposes higher taxes, increased government spending, in-state tuition for immigrants who are in the country illegally, gun control, same-sex marriage, subsidies for offshore wind farms, and whatever else Gov. Martin O'Malley might support? A show of hands, please.

The state of the Maryland GOP surely has little to do with Mr. O'Donnell's ability to deliver the party's message. He did so with eloquence, passion and conviction. Nonetheless, the party remains outnumbered by a more than 2-1 margin in the House. The problem was not Mr. O'Donnell's salesmanship. It's that the people of Maryland — two-thirds of them, anyway — weren't buying what he was selling. The party can change the messenger if it likes, but it's not likely to make much difference because the message will be almost exactly the same.

Mr. Kipke's record in Annapolis diverges little from Mr. O'Donnell's. Both are deeply conservative and unfailing critics of the Democratic leadership in Annapolis. The new minority leader says there will be little philosophical difference between the two regimes but that he will dedicate himself more fully to outreach through town hall meetings and greater coordination with GOP central committees and conservative groups like Change Maryland and Americans for Prosperity. If people understand what Republican policies have to offer them, Mr. Kipke said, the party will succeed. "We still believe Maryland to be a more moderate state than where the legislature has taken us in recent years."

The evidence for that is dubious. Republicans lost all three initiatives they put on the ballot in 2012, including high-profile fights over marriage equality and Maryland's version of the Dream Act. And polls show that the gun control measures the GOP has fought are strongly supported by the public. Mr. Kipke predicts that Democrats will be punished for the tax increases of the last few years, but that's not certain either. In 2006, Gov. Martin O'Malley defeated Republican incumbent Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. by about 7 points. In 2007, Mr. O'Malley enacted the largest package of tax increases in Maryland history. In 2010, he beat Mr. Ehrlich in a rematch by almost 15 points. The GOP lost two seats in the state Senate that year, too. (A bright spot was the Republican gain of six seats in the House under Mr. O'Donnell's leadership.)

Even if it is true that Marylanders are more moderate on some issues than the Democrats in the legislature, it is certainly the case that voters are more moderate than the state GOP. Marylanders may not like higher taxes, but they also, as a whole, understand the proposition that when it comes to government services, you get what you pay for. Over a long period of time, they have shown a willingness to invest in good schools, good roads and a clean environment — and a lack of interest in the reflexive anti-government rhetoric that Maryland Republicans too often parrot from the national party.

But rather than seeking to unite behind a moderate platform — the kind that led the likes of Wayne Gilchrest, Connie Morella, Helen Bentley and even Mr. Ehrlich to success — the state GOP seems more keen on damaging internal struggles. Like the selection of new party Chairwoman Diana Waterman last month, the election of Mr. Kipke and Ms. Szeliga has divided a party badly in need of unity. Already, a blogger at the site Red Maryland is complaining that Mr. Kipke is insufficiently conservative.

Gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts make it next to impossible for Republicans to make significant gains if their strategy is to try the same message, only louder this time. Infighting doesn't help either. But there is certainly a need for a meaningful alternative voice in Maryland's public policy debates. We can only hope that Mr. Kipke and his fellow Republicans will find it.

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