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Maryland

Resurgent state GOP optimistic about future

Little more than a year ago, Maryland Republicans were in trouble. The party was in debt. Its leaders in the legislature had resigned or been pushed out, and its third executive director in as many years abruptly quit.

Finger-pointing abounded as the GOP's conservative wing wrestled with mainstream members.

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But as state Republicans gather for their convention this weekend, the party stands in its strongest position in decades. Not only did Larry Hogan win the governor's mansion last month, but the GOP has a deeper bench than at any point in activists' memory.

Republicans in November captured a majority of county executive seats and knocked off almost every rural Democrat in the legislature.

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Party leaders say the state GOP is poised to remain a formidable force in a state long dominated by Democrats — and even some Democrats acknowledge that the opposing party may have turned a corner.

"They have become a more viable party," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said. "The Democrats better take them more seriously than before. We have to."

Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, sees vast possibilities, even challenging the Democrats' super majorities in the legislature.

"We're now probably the strongest we've ever been," Cluster said.

Hogan is scheduled to address the GOP convention at Turf Valley on Saturday at what is expected to be one of the most harmonious gatherings the Republicans have had in years.

"Nothing spurs unity more than victory. Winning can really help set the reset button," said Richard Cross, a former speechwriter for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the last Republican to win statewide office in Maryland.

Unlike the leadership battles of years past, Maryland GOP Chairwoman Diana Waterman's re-election will be uncontested Saturday.

Although Hogan is the second Republican to win the governorship in roughly the past decade, the party is in a different position than when Ehrlich won in 2002. This time, Republicans have spent the past eight years building a farm team that now holds the majority — 59 percent — of local elective offices in the state, including some longtime Democratic strongholds.

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Five of the nine county executives in Maryland are Republicans, and the party now has 50 seats in the House of Delegates. For the first time, Cluster said, the Maryland Republican Party was able to raise over $1 million for a candidate, supplementing Hogan's publicly financed campaign. More importantly, Cluster said, the fundraising sent a message that the party could be a force to help candidates — and that the party was worth rebuilding.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the Democrats "absolutely" have reason to fear a stronger Republican resurgence in four years.

A second Republican wave in 2018 would position the party for even greater gains, since whoever is governor in 2020 will help oversee the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts following the next U.S. Census.

"Larry Hogan has a winning personality, and if he ... brings into his Cabinet Republican members who have a history of making government work, he can be a very effective governor," Miller said. "Using the powers of his office, he has the ability to propel his party into heights it hasn't achieved for almost a century."

Miller's tempered respect for the Republicans today is a far cry from his attitude in January 2009, on the eve of the rematch fight between Gov. Martin O'Malley and Ehrlich.

Then, Miller said, "We're going to shoot 'em down, and we're going to bury them face down, deep and far. So deep and far it's going to take 20 years for them to come out the other side. They'll see China from there."

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Miller dismissed those remarks this week as "election-year rhetoric."

Not all political observers believe Republicans have made enough gains to seize the opportunity in front of them.

"It could portend that, but I wouldn't hold my breath," said Donald Norris, a longtime political observer and chair of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

For 30 years, Norris said, any time the party turns more mainstream and secures victories, the more conservative wing has tried to wrest power back.

"They've gone through this 'pull to the right and then re-center' dance before," Norris said. "The tea party right and the fringe Republicans could continue what they've done: eating their young, going after each other in primaries to make the party even more conservative and, in turn, more marginal in the rest of the state."

The Republicans are certainly still a vastly outnumbered minority in Maryland, where Democrats hold a 2-1 registration advantage and voters consistently elect Democrats in presidential years.

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All but one member of Maryland's congressional delegation are Democrats. Democrats hold super majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, as well as leadership in the most populous jurisdictions.

Cluster said a key factor may help solidify his party's new foothold: "I think the Republican Party has a chance to raise a lot of money and become a viable second party."

When Cluster's predecessor, David Ferguson, started his stint in the fall of 2011, the party had to take out a loan to pay the first month of his salary.

"When Ehrlich did not get re-elected, a lot of the money dried up. People were trying to dig out of that hole for a long, time," Ferguson said. Businesses that would drop $20,000 during the Ehrlich years, he said, wouldn't give a dime afterward. The party's annual fundraiser raised $110,000 in 2010, for example, but just $9,000 in 2011.

The party, he said "was basically just in survive-and-advance mode for many, many years."

At one point, the party owed $75,000 to former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who had paid the party's legal fees. The party moved out of its plum headquarters location, lcated steps from the Maryland State House, and retrenched.

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The financial distress, Ferguson said, was somewhat maddening. "We did a wealth analysis on people in Maryland who are Republican, who vote," he said. "The capacity to donate is there," but donors were unwilling to help out the party.

Tides may have shifted. Hogan has at least three more fundraisers scheduled between now and the end of the year. Last month, he raised $250,000 in one afternoon at a $4,000-per-head event in Annapolis.

Party insiders say they believe Hogan has raised enough to retire his $500,000 campaign debt from the primary.

As for the governor-elect, Hogan said the future of the party depends on how well Republicans govern now that they have a position of power.

"Four years is a long way off," he said this week. "It depends on how good of a job we do, [whether] the Republican Party is going to do any better in four years."

ecox@baltsun.com

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