Maryland's Republican Party embraced its base Saturday by selecting reliably conservative Alex X. Mooney as chairman, overlooking the party's more moderate recent nominee for lieutenant governor.
The result ends the decade-long dominance of the Ehrlich wing of the Republican Party, a faction whose members sought to attract working-class voters and centrist Democrats. Its leader, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said he would close the book on state politics this year after a bruising 14.5 percentage point loss to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley in a year when the GOP made national gains.
In his brief acceptance speech Mooney, 39, declared, "Conservative wins. … You just have to stick to it and explain it to people.
"I think we win by not compromising principles," he said, a nod to conservatives who complain that the party has compromised too many core beliefs to reach for power.
Mooney, a three-term state senator from Frederick, lost his bid for re-election this year. But he impressed many at the Republican convention with his aggressive style, detailed fundraising plan and commitment to embrace the tea party organizations whose members have felt left out by the current Maryland GOP.
Mooney edged out four other candidates including Mary Kane, who was Ehrlich's running mate this year. Many believed she was a shoo-in for the post because of her statewide connections; her husband John Kane ran the state GOP while Ehrlich was governor.
But those ties may have worked against her. During her speech she took pains to distance herself from Ehrlich, referring to herself as "my own person." She came in distant second and failed to win a majority of votes from her home Montgomery County.
Mooney won nods of approval during a nomination speech in which he pledged to use his knowledge of the legislative process to hold Democrats accountable by comparing their committee votes with their public statements on issues.
"Alex plays hard," said Chris Cavey, a former chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Party. "He works hard. He'll push, push, push the party, and that is a good thing."
In a signal that Mooney may use the post to promote the staunchly conservative ideas he championed on the Senate floor, he said that he might "take on some fights on social issues." Mooney consistently voted against the state budget and spoke out against gay marriage and funding for abortion. He said he has taken heat for standing up to the "homosexual agenda" in Annapolis.
The change in tone will delight some in the party, said Debbie Belcher, an Anne Arundel County Central Committee member who backed Mooney. "Some people felt the Ehrlich administration disenfranchised some conservatives," she said.
Mooney takes over a party deeply divided about its future in Maryland, with some strategists suggesting that the GOP set aside any ambitions for statewide offices in the foreseeable future. Upcoming redistricting by the Democratic majority General Assembly will make holding on to any gains tougher.
But opportunities abound in the next cycle: O'Malley is term limited, and Attorney-General Douglas F. Gansler and Comptroller Peter Franchot are both eyeing gubernatorial races, which would leave their seats open.
That's why detractors say they worry about Mooney's commitment to the job. Don Murphy, a former delegate and former chairman of the Baltimore County GOP, backed Kane because of fears that Mooney is using the position "as a lifeboat" while he readies himself for a congressional run in 2012. "We need a game plan, not a drill," Murphy said.
Sen. David Brinkley, a republican who represents Carroll and Frederick counties, shares the concern and predicted that the new party chairman would want "to keep his name out in front of everybody." He complimented Mooney's organizational skills, but questioned whether Mooney's brand of conservatism would broaden the party's appeal.
"The party has to attract all types of voters as an alternative to the single-party politics in Maryland," said Brinkley, who will be the Senate's new minority whip.
Mooney said he supports a rule change to shorten the term of office to two years. "I don't know what the future holds," he said, adding that he does not believe there will be an opening in two years.
Mooney's resume includes a stint working for U.S. Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland, who is widely viewed to be nearing the end of his 17-year career in Congress. Mooney has been discussed as a potential successor to Bartlett when the congressman retires. He also worked for the incoming speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner.
Voting for the four-year party chairman post occurred in a crowded conference room at Doubletree Hotel Annapolis where all five candidates for the post lobbied convention-goers. Campaign signs adorned the walls, and delegates wore stickers declaring their allegiances. Only members of county central committees participate in the election, with their votes weighted based on how Ehrlich fared in their counties.
Mooney won the backing of two party stars. Prior to the voting, newly elected Congressman Andy Harris and former GOP gubernatorial nominee Ellen Sauerbrey worked the halls on his behalf.
He'll take the helm from Audrey Scott, who stepped into role last year when the former chairman, Jim Pelura, was deposed. Many credit Scott with yanking the party from the edge of bankruptcy and running the first statewide phone banking operations to boost voter turnout. She immediately swore in Mooney and stepped down.
Republican speakers at Saturday's convention put a positive spin on the November election. Several pointing to a growing farm team: The election results mean 15 of the state's 23 counties will be run by Republicans at the local level. Also, the party flipped a Democratic seat in the House of Representatives, sending Harris to Congress.
The monumental loss was at the top of the ticket, a contest that was once billed as a neck-and-neck re-match between two of the state's political titans. Republicans also lost two Senate seats, though they picked up six in the House of Delegates.
Mooney led after the initial round of voting, taking 276 votes to Kane's 183. Without a majority of the total 590 possible votes, the election went to a second round.
Mike Esteve, the 20-year-old Loyola College junior running for the post, yelled from the floor that he would pull out and urged his backers to support Kane. "She has the leadership experience," he said.
Next Bob Campbell, the party's pick for comptroller this year, declared, "I'm not viable any more," and withdrew. Just as voting was about to resume Sam Hale, the founder of a tea party group, threw his support to Mooney.
Cheers erupted when Mooney won the second round. The vote was 362-219.
Also selected for the new GOP leadership team Saturday were Diana Waterman of Queen Anne's County for first vice chairman; Larry Helminiak of Carroll County for second vice chairman; and Eric Grannon of Anne Arundel County for third vice chairman. The incoming secretary is John Wafer of Howard County. Chris Rosenthal of Anne Arundel County will remain the treasurer.