Harford County Executive David R. Craig has launched his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor in 2014, betting that he can overcome the suspicions of the far right of his party and the Democrats' 2-1 voter registration advantage in Maryland.
The 63-year-old veteran officeholder made his announcement Monday before several hundred backers at a hall in Havre de Grace, the historic town on the Susquehanna River where he grew up and got his start in politics.
Craig denounced the record of Gov. Martin O'Malley, charging that the term-limited Democrat has raised 40 taxes and fees since taking office in 2007.
He promised to challenge the "political monopoly in Annapolis" and rein in the growth of government.
"It's not us, it's government that has lost its focus," Craig said. "Government that promises you more and more and more is probably failing us."
Craig became the first Republican contender to make his candidacy for governor official, but the field is likely to become more crowded.
Former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a commentator for MSNBC and a former Republican Party national chairman, said Monday that he is considering a run for the State House. Steele told MSNBC's Chuck Todd that he doesn't believe he needs to make up his mind until late this year.
Steele told MSNBC that he's "serious" about a potential run, though he acknowledged that "Maryland is a tough state" for Republican candidates.
"I think we can move the state in a different direction," Steele said. "Our economy is not competitive in the region anymore."
Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County is expected to announce his candidacy Wednesday, emphasizing his experience as a small-business owner. Blaine Young, Republican president of the Frederick County commissioners, said Monday that he expects to make an announcement about a possible run in August or September. There is also an active movement to draft Charles Lollar, a former Republican House nominee.
Over the weekend, 2012 U.S. Senate nominee Dan Bongino took himself out of the race, saying he would run for Congress instead.
Craig promised a campaign that "stays away from petty attacks" and focuses on issues.
A former teacher and assistant principal, Craig told the gathering he would make education a key issue. He dismissed Maryland's ranking by Education Week as having the No. 1 schools in the nation — a proud boast of O'Malley and Democratic leaders of the General Assembly — as something "said by a trade publication and politicians."
"It has nothing to do with student achievement," he said
In an interview, Craig said he would look for ways to roll back some of the tax increases adopted since O'Malley became governor. He specifically pointed to the sales tax, which he said should be no higher than 5 percent, the level where it stood before it was increased to 6 percent in 2007.
To offset the tax cuts, Craig said he would impose a hard freeze on state spending. He said he would consider merging some departments, including those overseeing agriculture, natural resources and the environment.
Craig also said he would change the way the state collects a stormwater cleanup fee that some have derided as the "rain tax." He said he would prefer to set the fees based on the particular Chesapeake Bay tributary affected by a local jurisdiction rather than on the needs of the entire bay watershed.
Of the potential GOP candidates, Craig boasts the longest record in public office. Before being appointed in 2005 as county executive — a position to which he was elected in 2006 and 2010 — he served as councilman and mayor in Havre de Grace and as a delegate and state senator.
During his career, Craig has compiled a solidly conservative record — but not conservative enough for some in the Republican Party. In the run-up to his announcement, he became the target of an email campaign characterizing him as a "RINO" — for Republican in Name Only.
Nevertheless, Craig's brand of conservatism is solid enough to earn him the support of Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the GOP nominee for governor in 1994 and 1998 and a favorite of the party's right wing.
"Government in Maryland is out of control," Sauerbrey said. "I want to be in a state that is run like Harford County."
But Donald Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the Republican Party has moved further to the right since Sauerbrey led the party. He said Craig could very well lose the primary, especially if he has only one opponent from the tea party wing of the GOP.
Brian Griffiths, chairman of the Maryland Young Republicans, said Craig is a credible candidate with "a pretty good shot at winning the general election." But Griffiths said the primary will not be a "walkover" for him because some in the party suspect he's not conservative enough — partly because of Craig's focus on fiscal over social issues.
"It is a criticism I have heard from some people," Griffiths said. "I would not say it's widespread through the party, but it's out there."
Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Harford Republican, said that when party members learn about Craig's record, they'll be pleased.
"David's had many, many years of public service and he has a conservative record," she said. "How can they not like that?"
Young said his concern is that Craig doesn't have what it takes to energize the Republican base.
"People always say I've been able to fire up people," he said.
Craig is attempting to do what only one other Republican has done in the past 40 years: win the governorship in one of the most heavily Democratic states in the nation. The one Republican who did win, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2002, lost his bid for re-election to O'Malley in 2006.
Despite that record, Craig promised to wage a competitive race.
"There will be some naysayers out there who say this race is already over," he said. "They don't know what it's like to put up with someone from Havre de Grace."
Craig was appointed county executive in 2005 to replace James Harkins, who resigned to take a position in the Ehrlich administration, and won election with 53 percent of the vote in 2006. In 2010 he faced no Democratic opponent and won re-election with 80 percent of the vote against a nominee of the far-right Constitution Party. Because of term limits, he cannot seek re-election.
While Craig has won most of his elections in Harford County — his 1998 loss to Harkins in the Republican primary was an exception — he is not known as a galvanizing campaigner or a favorite of grass-roots conservatives. Last year, though he was considered the front-runner for the GOP's 2014 nomination, he came in second in fundraising to Young.
Nevertheless, Craig led the field in a straw poll at the Maryland Young Republican convention over the weekend with 43 percent of the vote. Lollar got 22 percent and Young 17 percent. Steele did not receive any votes, Griffiths said.
If Craig wins the June 2014 primary, Norris said, he would still face long odds in Maryland's general election.
"A good Democratic candidate running a good campaign beats a good Republican candidate running a good campaign statewide every time, because the numbers are prohibitively in favor of the Democrats," he said.
David R. Craig
Job: Harford County executive
Resides: Havre de Grace
Education: B.A., Towson University; M.A., Morgan State University.
Experience: Havre de Grace councilman and mayor, delegate, state senator.
Personal: Married to the former Melinda Blevins, three children