With a crucial election around the corner, the fortunes of the Maryland GOP are on the rise — literally and figuratively. The party raised $143,000 in April and is on track to easily repay its debt to former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele's campaign, while still having plenty of money left over to open field offices and provide training and support for candidates across the state. Political considerations aside, the return of the once-broke party to solvency is unquestionably a good thing. Voters deserve a spirited debate and a legitimate choice in this fall's election, and without a strong Republican Party apparatus, they won't get it.
Part of the GOP's fundraising success certainly has to do with a national political mood that has re-energized conservatives, and with the strong campaign by state Sen. Andy Harris in Maryland's 1st Congressional District and with former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s quest to regain his old job. But there's more to the story than that. The party's new chairwoman, Audrey Scott, insists that she shouldn't get too much credit for the turnaround, but she deserves it. A veteran of state Republican politics with extensive practical experience in running campaigns and serving in elected office, Ms. Scott has assembled a professional staff and has mended divisions in a party that is too small to be able to afford them.
She took over in November after the ouster of former party chairman James Pelura, who resigned in September amid complaints that he failed at fundraising and party-building activities like voter registration. But the bigger strike against him was his reputation for criticizing elected Republicans — something you'd never catch a Maryland Democratic Party chairman doing to his own party officials — and in particular for taking swipes at Mr. Ehrlich, who remained the most unifying and energizing force in the state party.
Ms. Scott has returned the job to a focus on the nuts and bolts: fundraising and logistics. She said the party will soon open seven field offices around the state to provide resources for candidates, such as access to voter registration databases, and is running training programs to help candidates learn how to run for office. She's working to unify candidates under an inclusive message of promoting job growth, reducing taxes and spending, and seeking some checks and balances to the redistricting process that will take place after the next election. Debates over who counts as a real Republican — a silly idea in a blue state like Maryland — are out. "There are no litmus tests in the Republican Party," Ms. Scott says. "Not under Audrey time, no way, Jose."
Most of the attention in the state is going to be focused on the likely rematches between Mr. Ehrlich and Gov. Martin O'Malley and Rep. Frank Kratovil and Dr. Harris. And the state party will certainly play a role in helping those efforts. But Mr. Ehrlich and Dr. Harris both have significant resources of their own. Perhaps the greater test of the party's strength will be its ability to win races for the legislature and local offices. For years, the Maryland GOP has been able to rally support around a few star candidates with crossover appeal — Helen Bentley, Ellen Sauerbrey and Mr. Ehrlich, for example — but not to build its membership numbers or to develop the strong "bench" of political talent in lower offices that's required to ensure widespread, sustainable success.
Ms. Scott's goals for this election are to pick up five seats in the state Senate — enough for Republicans to sustain a gubernatorial veto, should Mr. Ehrlich recapture his old job — and 17 seats in the House. Those goals will be difficult to attain, particularly since the party will also have to defend the Senate seats being vacated by Dr. Harris and Eastern Shore Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, who announced his retirement this year. But the party learned during Mr. Ehrlich's term that taking the top job in Maryland government isn't enough; an Ehrlich victory this year, absent significant gains in the legislature, would be a recipe for four more years of gridlock.
It's impossible to predict how the political fortunes of the two parties will look in November, but the resurgence of the GOP under Ms. Scott's leadership at least assures us there will be two real parties this fall. No matter who wins, that's a good thing for Maryland.