The GOP needs another Ehrlich [Commentary]

The Republican Party is lacking a charismatic candidate

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I miss Bob Ehrlich. Seriously, I do.

I realize the former governor shares space with me here on the Baltimore Sun's opinion pages; in terms of sheer column inches, I suppose Mr. Ehrlich the Pundit is never that far away.

But I'm talking about Mr. Ehrlich the Politician.

A dozen years have passed since Mr. Ehrlich first ran for governor, in 2002. He beat then-Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend that year. Along with his running mate, Michael Steele, Mr. Ehrlich seemed to have revived the Maryland Republican Party almost overnight.

But 2002 was an unusually strong, post-Sept. 11 cycle for Republicans. The 2006 cycle was not, and so four short years later both men's elected political careers ended — at least for now — when Mr. Ehrlich lost his re-election bid to Martin O'Malley in 2006 and Mr. Steele was bested by Ben Cardin in the contest to replace the state's retiring senior senator, Paul Sarbanes.

Mr. Steele went on to serve a short and somewhat controversial stint as chair of the Republican National Committee. He's now a paid talking head on MSNBC which, unlike lieutenant governor or U.S. senator or even RNC chairman, requires neither election nor re-election.

It would appear that Maryland's two most notable and successful Republicans of the past generation have retired from electoral politics. And although I wouldn't be surprised if one or the other took a stab at the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Barbara Mikulski, if and when she decides she no longer wants to serve, their presumed retirements are problematic.

Some of my liberal Democratic friends around the state might be shocked to hear me say this. Indeed, I was often quite critical of Mr. Ehrlich before and during his governorship. They might even assume I merely miss Messrs. Ehrlich and Steele because the duo provided political junkies like me much to write about.

I'll cop to that: Maryland state politics is more exciting with them in the mix. And that's the point.

Consider, by contrast, the Republicans' current nominee for governor, Larry Hogan.

There's nothing particularly offensive about Mr. Hogan or his politics. He's a standard, Chamber of Commerce-style Republican who made his career in commercial real estate, believes in limited government and low taxes, served in Mr. Ehrlich's cabinet, and by all indications has a family as nice as his coiffed shock of white hair.

Translation? Yawn.

Mr. Hogan complains that state Democrats are unfairly criticizing him as a conservative radical on social issues, and he's probably right about that. But here's the thing: Even a relatively uncontroversial Republican like himself is still too far to the right for this very blue state. To win in this state, even anodyne Republicans must offer voters something more.

So say what you want about Mr. Ehrlich's policies or politics, but at least he and Mr. Steele provided a jolt to state politics and a long-needed booster shot for the Maryland GOP.

After all, there's value to having some semblance of party competition. Yet most states are, like Maryland, moving toward one-party dominance. In fact, following the 2012 elections the number of split-party state governments — i.e., states where neither party controls the governor's office and both chambers — fell to a mere dozen. Following the 1992 election cycle, there were 30 split-party states.

Which may explain why an ambitious young Republican like Alex Mooney recently bolted Maryland for West Virginia. The former Frederick state senator fit rather well the western Maryland-based 6th Congressional District where he resided — until, that is, he realized it would be much easier to win a seat in the U.S. House from the Mountaineer State.

There are some potentially promising Republicans in the state. I've written favorably about the social issue libertarianism of state Sen. Allan Kittleman, and Rep. Andy Harris may hold the 1st District seat for life. But Mr. Kittleman is unlikely to win the Howard County executive race this November, and Mr. Harris is already bumping against his electoral glass-ceiling.

Long-gone former governors Jerry Brown of California and Terry Branstad of Iowa proved that dormant electoral careers can be revived. So whaddya say, Bob?

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.


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