These are especially trying times for Maryland Republicans.
They suffered crushing defeats in the most recent election. They are outnumbered and often sidelined in Annapolis. They are having trouble raising campaign cash. And internal tensions are simmering at the state party's headquarters.
But they also see an opportunity in this General Assembly session. There the GOP is honing a critique of Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's fiscal stewardship, and they are hammering topics such as rising electricity rates, driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and a proposed death penalty repeal, issues on which they see themselves as aligned with mainstream Marylanders.
To ensure that their voices are heard, Republicans have launched new caucus Web sites and put up pages on social networking sites such as Facebook and Flickr, taking a cue from the technology-driven campaign of President Barack Obama. They've also hit YouTube, where they posted the party's formal response to O'Malley's annual State of the State address.
Gaining ground is difficult in a state where there are two registered Democratic voters for every Republican, and Democrats have assembled a formidable party and campaign-finance operation. But some believe the faltering economy, a budgetary morass and other issues create an opening for Republicans.
"In Maryland, Democrats have gotten us to this point, and I'm convinced there's going to be this throw-the-bums-out mentality. I would be worried if I were an incumbent," said Doug Duncan, the former Montgomery County executive who dropped out of the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Republicans are stressing "meat and potatoes" issues that matter to voters, particularly in areas outside Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, said former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who lost to O'Malley in 2006 but remains a party standard bearer. "There is a very strong moderate to conservative wing of the Democratic Party, and that hasn't changed," Ehrlich said. When those Democrats are unhappy, they tend to eschew party lines in statewide elections, he added.
If Republicans are wondering whether their message is being heard, the answer came recently in a handwritten note from O'Malley. It was addressed to Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House of Delegates' top Republican, who had delivered a harsh rebuke to the Democratic governor's State of the State address.
O'Malley wrote that he was sorry O'Donnell didn't like his speech and included a copy of another he had delivered on leadership. The anecdote makes O'Donnell smile. It shows people are paying attention.
But even as Republicans push to expand their influence, a rift has developed within the party.
Del. Christopher Shank, the minority whip from Washington County, said last week that he has "no confidence" in party chairman James Pelura. He said Pelura, a veterinarian who took on the volunteer post more than two years ago, has not focused on his duties and meddled in caucus affairs.
Pelura defended his record, saying his aim is not to formulate policy but to promote the Republican ideology.
"The idea is to get people to join our side, and how you do that is by articulating a clear message that is different than the other side."
Chief among complaints is the GOP's fundraising record. The state party is $57,000 in debt, according to the latest report. And while party leaders say they are raking in small donations, others say they must tap the business community for larger contributions.
"You have to put money in the bank to be credible. You've got to raise more than they are raising," said Kevin Igoe, a Republican operative working with former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele on his transition to national party chairman. "The party in Maryland needs to concentrate its time and effort on raising money, recruiting and training candidates, and training activists at local level."
Ehrlich, who became governor in part by appealing to voters outside the population centers, is a go-to political adviser to Republicans considering running for office in Maryland. One or two a month make the pilgrimage to his Baltimore law office, he said.
As for his own future, Ehrlich said a decision on challenging O'Malley in 2010 hinges on personal considerations and on the political landscape. Party insiders say he is monitoring O'Malley's approval ratings to help gauge his chances.
A run against O'Malley would be difficult to mount. O'Malley has $1.9 million in campaign funds on hand - dwarfing Ehrlich's $150,000. He also has a bully pulpit that enables him to keep his visibility high and a party operation that registered more than 225,000 new voters in the last election.
The outcome of the legislative session will help determine the Republican Party's position in the next election, and could help in recruiting candidates. "This is going to cement in people's minds whether they think the state is going in the right direction or whether they want to make a difference," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the minority leader from Howard County.
Republicans are focusing on the state's financial problems.
They say O'Malley has failed to implement long-term budget solutions and plans to use billions of dollars in federal stimulus money as a Band-Aid that masks deficits in later years. Duncan, who does not rule out another challenge to O'Malley, has made the same critique.
O'Malley, dogged by budget shortfalls amid a declining economy, contends that he has made tough decisions that put Maryland in far better financial shape than other states. He points to $1.3 billion in tax increases enacted in a special legislative session in 2007 and more than $2 billion in spending reductions. His aides note that federal stimulus funding is meant to be spent immediately to boost the economy and create jobs, not to fill future budget shortfalls.
Republicans have identified other wedge issues they believe resonate with voters as well.
GOP lawmakers are highlighting their perennial objection to the state's policy of issuing driver's licenses to people who cannot prove they are in the country legally. They say the system makes Maryland, one of four states that do not require a "legal presence" by drivers, a magnet for undocumented immigrants.
Democrats have introduced legislation to allow the system to continue. But O'Malley has said he would require driver's license applicants to prove they are legal residents, a change designed to meet a 2010 deadline for complying with the federal Real ID security law. Legislation could come this session, his aides say.
Many Republicans also plan to fight O'Malley's drive to repeal the death penalty in Maryland, noting that polls show a majority of residents still support capital punishment. GOP leaders, though, are reluctant to demand a united front because some members may have moral objections to the death penalty.
Nonetheless, Republicans are hopeful that they will reach more voters. "We are not as bad off as people are saying," Kittleman said. "That Mark Twain quote seems to apply here, that rumors of our death are greatly exaggerated."
Republican stances in Annapolis:
* Reduce the size of the state budget
* Bar illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses
* Oppose repeal of the death penalty
Find more political news at baltimoresun.com/marylandpolitics