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Strength of Md. Tea Party to be tested Tuesday

Meeting at a swim and tennis club in this tony Washington suburb, the Montgomery County Tea Party activists demanded answers from Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s pick for lieutenant governor.

What will the Republican former governor do to hunt down illegal immigrants if he wins in November? Which government programs will he cut to pay for promised tax cuts? What business regulations will he lift?

And the most heated query: Why, the small crew pressed lieutenant gubernatorial hopeful Mary Kane during their meeting last week, won't Ehrlich debate his conservative GOP primary challenger?

"Do you see why ignoring a person like Brian Murphy, who is supported by Tea Party people, would turn off Tea Party people?" growled Maryland Society of Patriots founder William Hale.

When the votes are counted in the Republican primary Tuesday, Ehrlich will learn just how many Tea Party supporters he might have alienated. The first Republican to win the governor's office in Maryland since Spiro Agnew is expected to sail to victory over Murphy — the only question being the size of the margin.

In other states this primary season, it's been a different story. In Alaska last month, Fairbanks attorney Joe Miller rode Tea Party support and an endorsement by Sarah Palin to a surprise victory over Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP convention. In Utah earlier this year, Tea Party activists helped oust Republican Sen. Bob Bennett at the party's state convention.

Tea Party-backed candidates have also defeated establishment candidates for senator in Colorado and Kentucky and governor in South Carolina. Now in Delaware, the national Tea Party Express is pouring money into the campaign of Christine O'Donnell, a conservative activist who is challenging moderate Republican Rep. Mike Castle for the Senate seat long occupied by Vice President Joe Biden.

But Maryland, a generally liberal state with some deeply conservative voters, has seen comparatively little of such activity. Judging by the polls and campaign finance reports, even Palin's endorsement of Murphy earlier this summer did little to change the political landscape.

How has the state's Republican establishment managed to avoid a Tea Party challenge?

Conservative activists have a simple answer: Give us time.

They say their focus is on the local level, where some are threatening traditional GOP candidates. They want representation on central committees and in the House of Delegates. Their mission now it is not to rattle the GOP establishment, they say, but to educate voters.

"It took us 100 years to get here. It will take 100 years to get back," said Jackie Gregory, a founding member of the Cecil County Patriots, which counts 300 conservative members.

"People who are involved now cannot go back to the way they were. Whether it takes two years, four years or 20 years, we're going to keep going."

Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, is hardly friendly territory for conservatives.

"Tea Party organization is clearly strongest in Republican red states — the redder the better," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

There is likely a more specific reason that the movement has not posed a threat to the establishment: Ehrlich's dominance in Republican circles means many of Maryland's most sophisticated conservative activists and donors already have forged deep ties with him.

"A lot of allegiances were made eight years ago. Those are hard to break," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., an Eastern Shore Republican. "I think we are a bit of an anomaly here. A lot of people have worked on behalf of Ehrlich."

The state's largest Tea Party organization, the 23,000-member Americans for Prosperity, is run by a former Ehrlich fundraiser, Dave Schwartz. The group is legally barred from endorsing politicians, so it has not officially weighed in on the governor's race — or any other contest. But its message is remarkable similar to the one promoted by Ehrlich.

They criticize spending decisions by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has raised taxes and accepted federal money to balance the state budget, but not Ehrlich, who used similar methods while in office from 2003 to 2007.

The Tea Party movement grew out of rallies in Washington and around the country beginning in early 2009, shortly after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, to protest the bank bailout bill, government spending generally and taxes.

Marylanders, energized by events in nearby Washington, began to organize local groups as forums in which they could continue to discussing their ideas. The Hagerstown Tea Party group, for example, plans a series of classes on the U.S. Constitution this fall.

Supporters say there is no single Tea Party organization, but rather a movement organized around common beliefs in smaller government, lower taxes and greater freedom.

The Maryland groups say they tend not to endorse candidates, preferring instead to provide information about candidate records and let members decide for themselves. They have been frustrated by an agreement among state GOP leaders to waive a party rule prohibiting the Republican National Committee from giving money or other help to primary candidates.

That pact has allowed the RNC to back Ehrlich over Murphy for the gubernatorial nomination, and Republican state Sen. Andrew P. Harris over Eastern Shore businessman Rob Fisher in the First Congressional District.

"The Republican Party has (stepped) on us," said Hale, of the Maryland Society of Patriots. Nontheless, he and other Tea Party activists say they will vote for the establishment Republicans in November.

"We'll be loyal," he said.

State Republican Chairwoman Audrey Scott says the agreement has allowed more money to flow into the state party, enabling the GOP to open field offices in every county. She said those resources are available to all primary candidates — including Murphy and Fisher.

"They are still kind of organizing," Scott said of the Maryland Tea Party groups. "For this campaign, this election year, I think it is just kind of new."

Scott said she has noticed few candidates at any level attaching the Tea Party label to their yard signs or campaign literature.

But that hardly means the establishment, or the presumptive GOP gubernatorial nominee, is ignoring Maryland Tea Party groups.

"It is here," Ehrlich said. "It is exerting influence in the political process. It is certainly exerting influence in the Republican Party."

Ehrlich turned up at a Tea Party rally on the first day of the session in Annapolis, but did not address it. He had endorsed two Tea Party activists running in contested GOP primaries for state delegate, throwing his support behind Hagerstown Tea Party founder Neil Parrot and Patrick McGrady, a member of the Campaign for Liberty, a conservative group founded by Ron Paul that focuses on fiscal issues.

The two candidates accept Ehrlich's nod, but both say they stand to his right.

"I'm not going to lie. There are a lot of people who look at Ehrlich and say, 'He is not as conservative as I am,'" said McGrady. The support for Ehrlich exists among conservatives, he says, because "we need to hedge our bets."

Given the voter registration numbers, Ehrlich needs the support of at least some Democrats if he is to win a statewide election. He has positioned himself as a pragmatist who can work with independents and Democrats.

In some pockets of the state, however, Tea Party support is likely enough to ensure electoral success. Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland has joined the Tea Party Caucus in Congress.

The label is potent enough in on the Eastern Shore that GOP members are bickering over who can rightfully claim it. Smigiel, who represents much of the northern shore, ran afoul of some in the movement by sending out a mailer touting himself and other candidates as "Tea Party Tested, Tea Party Approved."

The only problem: The Cecil County Patriots, who view themselves as the strongest Tea Party group in the area, have some significant policy differences with some of the office-seekers.

"You have candidates who will use it as an opportunity to use the movement," said Jackie Gregory, of the Patriots. "I'm offended by it. It is an attempt at being used. The Tea Party belongs to the people. I wish they had not done that."

Smigiel says he has enough Tea Party credibility to pass out the label.

"Tea Party is a very nebulous term," he said. As long as candidates believe in cutting taxes, reducing government spending and creating jobs, he felt he could apply the Tea Party label.

"Am I trying to appeal to those crowds? Yes, absolutely," Smigiel said. "What politician would not want to appeal to the masses who are coming to the state to say we need these things?"

Annie.linskey@baltsun.com

http://www.twitter.com/annielinskey

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