If Maryland's troubled Republican Party hopes to challenge the Democrats' longtime dominance in statewide elections, it needs to make a strong showing in next year's voting. But judging from the reticence of their brightest stars, Republicans may find themselves once again overwhelmed and shut out of statewide offices in 1994.
The latest no-show is Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, widely considered the GOP's strongest gubernatorial candidate in years. This weekend, Mr. Neall bowed out, citing a variety of reasons. Among the most prominent: no "fire in the belly" to raise $3 million and wage a grueling, year-long campaign throughout the state.
This is a major setback for Republicans. Mr. Neall's brand of pragmatic conservatism and consensus-building across party lines made him an ideal "cross-over" candidate. The GOP must move toward the middle of the political spectrum to reach independents and discontented Democrats if it is to win statewide.
Instead, the state Republican Party seems to be veering further to the right. The leading contender now in the gubernatorial contest is Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, a Reaganomics true-believer who sharply criticized Mr. Neall for daring to strike deals with Democrats. The other Republican in the race is William S. Shepard, the former diplomat whose main claim to fame is that he got 40 percent of the vote three years ago against an unpopular incumbent, Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Still trying to make up her mind is Rep. Helen D. Bentley, whose brand of maverick conservatism places her to the right of the political center in this state, but positions her as a centrist and a moderate among Republican regulars. Mrs. Bentley has been tantalizing the GOP for six months. She says she'll decide soon whether to run for governor, senator or re-election to the House. But she has been saying the same thing since last spring.
Compounding the GOP's problem is that none of the party's big guns wants to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, whose weak approval ratings should make him a prime Republican target. If the GOP can't get a top-flight candidate to run for the U.S. Senate in a race that just might favor the Republicans, what hope is there for building a strong party in Maryland?
Once again, state Republicans are in disarray. Discontent with nearly all Democratic officeholders seems to be running high. The outgoing Democratic Schaefer administration is the target of much of this public ire. The unpopularity of President Clinton also could help Republicans next year. But as the Republicans' state conference in Cumberland this weekend proved, the GOP can't seem to find a formula for persuading its top candidates to take risks. It is an unhealthy situation. Maryland voters would be much better off if this state had a true two-party system.