After a dozen years of election frustration and failure, Republicans in Howard County are looking for a way back to political prominence.
Things have only gotten worse since the GOP lost the county executive's post to Democrat James N. Robey in 1998. In the Nov. 2 election, in which many Democrats elsewhere were defeated amid strong anti-incumbent sentiment, Ken Ulman was re-elected to a second term as county executive. Democrats also hold four of the five County Council seats, plus eight of 11 General Assembly seats from Howard, keeping the party in control of the county's House and Senate delegations. Even Kay Hartleb, the Republican register of wills for 24 years, was trailing Democrat Byron MacFarlane by just over 200 votes Wednesday night in unofficial returns, though a few provisional ballots remained uncounted.
The effect was demoralizing, and it has left some Republican candidates stunned and uncertain what to do.
"I'm really surprised to see the results across the state," said Kyle Lorton, a first-time state Senate candidate who lost badly in his bid to unseat Robey. "I really felt I had a shot to win," Lorton said. "It was really frustrating."
Republican Party stalwarts aired similar concerns.
"I'm still scratching my head. When are people going to wake up?" asked Dennis R. Schrader, who lost his challenge to Democrat Jen Terrasa in a bid to recapture his former District 3 County Council seat. "My focus for 23 years has been trying to make Maryland a two-party state."
Party leaders are particularly puzzled about the lower-than-usual turnout, with about 57 percent of county residents voting instead of the roughly 62 percent who voted four years ago. But incoming county Republican Party Chairwoman Loretta Shields said one thing is clear.
"Apparently in Howard County, our message of lower taxes doesn't resonate with people," she said. Shields said she ran into several voters in Highland during the campaign who said, "Don't reduce taxes. We've got the best schools here."
"'Lower taxes' are not the two words to use here," Shields said. She and departing GOP Chairwoman Joan Becker said they hope the influx of defense jobs over the next few years as part of the military base realignment and closure process will bring more voters who will lean Republican.
That seems to belie the confident message Republicans were broadcasting after serious losses in 2006, when they said national antipathy toward then-President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans boosted local Democrats. That's when Ulman became county executive and Republicans lost a key state Senate seat to Robey, while the fourth council seat went to Democrat Courtney Watson.
"I think four years from now, we could see a very different election," state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman had said in November 2006.
"I'm very confident in the incompetence of the Democrats," said then-county GOP Chairman Brian Harlin.
Republican Del. Warren E. Miller said "runaway spending" and higher state and local taxes would drive Howard voters back to his party. None of their predictions came true.
Republicans locally didn't lose more ground, but they didn't gain any either, leaving just four party members in policy-making offices out of 17 elected positions in the county. As a result of their dominance locally and in Annapolis, Democrats will control redistricting, the redrawing of congressional, legislative and County Council district boundary lines that follows every census.
Instead of gaining the five state Senate seats statewide that Kittleman repeatedly told voters that Republicans needed to win a seat at the decision-making table, the GOP lost two more members, including Sen. Alex X. Mooney of Frederick, one of the Senate's most conservative members. In Howard, Kittleman won easily, but so did Democrats Robey and Majority Leader Edward J. Kasemeyer.
Kittleman said money is a big factor helping Democrats. "The Democrats have been able to convince businesses to support them," which is a statewide problem for the GOP, he said.
"I was pretty much frustrated," said Del. Gail H. Bates, one of two Republican members of the House of Delegates from Howard. "I thought we had some of the best candidates we ever had."
Del. Warren E. Miller, her GOP colleague in the House, said the party will be back.
"There's only one way to go. We grow," he said. "We didn't lose seats. We held our ground. We'll come back in four years. I'm an optimist."
Shields and Becker said they are looking for answers in the low turnout.
"What caused people not to vote? There's something wrong," Shields said. "My frustration is, we had 45,000 votes for [Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.], but there are 56,000 registered Republicans in the county."
She said she wants to send out a survey asking simple questions: "Where were you? Why?"
"We're asking a lot of whys," she said.
Trent Kittleman, the Republican contender for county executive and Kittleman's stepmother, said, "Local politics is so much different than national politics." Ulman's message that Howard County is on top and voters needed to keep it there was attractive to voters, she said. "People are satisfied."
County Councilman Greg Fox said Howard has been cushioned from the worst of the recession because of its large contingent of federal workers and proximity to Washington's largesse.
"We're just not feeling the pain," he said. "Federal dollars are keeping us afloat."
Still, he and other Republicans feel their party will come back in Howard. It is not permanently relegated to winning only in the rural western part of the county, they said.
Allan Kittleman said he finds no fault with the Republican message of less spending and lower taxes. "I really do believe the long-term prognosis for Howard County and Maryland is not good" unless major cuts are made, he said.
Fox, too, said he's confident Republicans will come back, and Democrats aren't dismissing their chances.
"It all depends on the mood of the people," said county Democratic Party Chairman Michael C.A. McPherson.
Watson, a moderate Democrat who tried to appear almost nonpartisan, said she felt the Republicans were too contentious.
"The local GOP had too much 'us' and 'them' for local council races," she said. "They will continue that at their peril. People want to see both sides working together."
But Lorton, though he lost with 37 percent of the vote, said he's not discouraged for the long term.
"I enjoyed the process and the whole idea of starting out with somebody with no name recognition," said Lorton, a former University of Maryland football player and a sales executive with W.R. Grace in Columbia.
Loretta Gaffney, who lost her second try for a District 13 House of Delegates seat as a Republican, said she's not discouraged and that she "meticulously" retrieved all her campaign signs for future use.
"I remain incredibly hopeful," she said.