GOP in 2014?

So, do Republicans have any chance of winning the governor's mansion back next year?

Let's look at the circumstances in place when the last two GOP governors (Spiro Agnew and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.) won, and when Ellen Sauerbrey came within 6,000 votes of an upset win.

An open seat. For Maryland Republicans, opportunity only knocks once every eight years — if it knocks at all. And history has demonstrated that those opportunities are confined to years like 2014, when no incumbent is running.

Since 1950, no sitting Democratic governor has been defeated. Both GOP governors and near-winner Sauerbrey did not have to face an incumbent governor.

But opportunity is fleeting. Just four years after her near win, Mrs. Sauerbrey lost by 10 points during her well-financed 1998 rematch against then-Gov. Parris Glendening, and Gov. Martin O'Malley beat Mr. Ehrlich by almost 15 points in 2010 after winning by just 6 in 2006.

A status quo backlash. Ms. Sauerbrey and Mr. Ehrlich were fortunate enough to be vying to succeed governors with popularity problems.

Due to the after-effects of a recession, higher taxes and his own quirky behavior, William Donald Schaefer left office with a 39 percent approval rating. Scandals caused Mr. Glendening's approval rating to plummet to 37 percent by October 2002.

Also at work in each instance: a national climate favoring the GOP. In September 2002, for example, President George W. Bush's post-9/11 approval ratings were an impressive 54 percent in Maryland, a boon to candidate Ehrlich.

In a January poll, Governor O'Malley's approval rating was 54 percent. Subsequent polling will demonstrate the extent that the tax increases and other controversial measures he championed during the 2013 legislative session have caught up with him.

Further, President Obama's approval ratings remain robust in Maryland, meaning that Obama fatigue may never be the factor here it will prove to be in races elsewhere.

Divided Democrats. Even following the most fractious primary fights, Maryland Democrats usually succeed in putting their political house in order. The rare instances in which they fail to do so translate into Republican opportunity.

In 1966, George P. Mahoney's racist "Your Home Is Your Castle — Protect It" message famously inspired many Democrats to support Mr. Agnew. In 1994, Mr. Schaefer's preferred successor — then-Rep. Helen Bentley — lost in the GOP primary, leaving Mr. Schaefer indifferent about Mr. Glendening. And in 2002, the public schism between then-Mayor O'Malley and Democratic nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend weakened her going into the general election.

If recent events are any indication, the upcoming Democratic primary fight certainly has grudge match potential, but it is too early to conclude the combatants won't ultimately be able to leave their hostility on the field.

The right champion, the right message. When Mr. Ehrlich announced his candidacy in 2002, he was the only candidate Maryland Republicans could credibly field. He alone had the requisite experience, charisma, fundraising ability and crossover appeal.

And even though Ms. Sauerbrey lost, her message won. As Governor Glendening took office, a poll showed that 60 percent of Marylanders still wanted the tax cut that was the centerpiece of the Sauerbrey campaign.

Time will tell if any of the present or rumored competitors for the GOP nomination can emerge as the kind of transformational "candidate of destiny" who can generate excitement and articulate a message that sells in deep-blue Maryland.

Despite some favorable circumstances, whoever the GOP nominates in 2014 has a rough road. To win, a Republican candidate must sweep Republican and unaffiliated voters while attracting significant crossover support from the 56 percent of Marylanders who are Democrats.

But Democrats are liberal and Republicans conservative in 2014 Maryland.

Whereas in the past the center of gravity in Maryland politics was a big-tent, ideologically diverse Democratic Party, today the majority party and its leadership are more predictably progressive. In other words, philosophical polarization of Maryland's electorate makes the prospect of significant Democratic defections unlikely.

Further, the political establishment has the tools (like early voting) it needs to cling to power even in unfavorable circumstances. And the Republicans — now divided between the tea party, liberty and establishment factions — have unity issues of their own.

Simply put, the GOP's eventual gubernatorial nominee could conceivably run a perfect campaign yet lose anyway simply because the resources and the numbers simply aren't there. Given these realities, I find it difficult to see any credible path for a GOP gubernatorial win in 2014.

That said, here's hoping someone proves this jaded observer wrong.

Richard J. Cross III, a Baltimore resident, is a former Republican Capitol Hill press secretary, communications director and gubernatorial speechwriter. He blogs at His email is

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