Time for Maryland Republicans to open up

Three years ago, Republicans running for statewide office got trounced, with their top candidate, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., winning less than 42 percent in his rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley. Nobody else got more than 39 percent, and the GOP didn't even bother to offer a candidate to run against the incumbent attorney general.

But that was par for the course. Other than Mr. Ehrlich's victory in 2002 and one or two other aberrations, Maryland Republicans running for statewide office in recent elections have usually gotten just enough votes to lose by a landslide. Powerball practically pays off more often.

This isn't exactly a fluke. Maryland is dominated by Democrats who hold a 2-1 registration edge. And as the national Republican Party has turned more conservative post-Ronald Reagan, Democratic control on statewide office has only gotten tighter. There are no more GOP candidates like Charles "Mac" Mathias Jr. who can appeal to both Republicans and Democrats.

With that in mind, it is stunning to hear that some in party leadership are hesitant to embrace a so-called open election in which independent voters would be allowed to cast ballots in the GOP primary. Independents are the fastest-growing segment of Maryland's electorate, and it would be sheer insanity for the Republicans not to invite them in.

The argument by conservatives that independents would somehow "dilute" the Republican point of view is a dangerous mindset. It suggests that the GOP would rather be an also-ran party than appeal to anyone but its far-right faction.

That's not just an invitation for Republicans to continue their string of losses in statewide contests for the foreseeable future, but it's also a death knell for those causes about which conservatives claim to care, like smaller government and lower taxes. Who will pick up that mantle if the GOP can't run a viable candidate for statewide office?

What appears to plague Maryland Republicans is the same problem that confronts the party on a national basis. They are held captive by local officeholders in solidly red districts who have no incentive to embrace compromise, ever. If their constituents want that my-way-or-the-highway attitude (and will choose a more conservative candidate if an incumbent veers from that message), it's difficult for an elected official to look beyond self-preservation. An official running in a safe Republican district need not care about doing what would help the party win statewide office.

One of the problems with that philosophy is that in Maryland, more than in many other states, the lion's share of political power rests in the hands of the governor. Even if Republicans make progress in picking up seats in the House or Senate (an effort that would also be assisted with an open primary), the big prize will always elude them.

Of course, others argue that an open primary makes it easier for outsiders to make mischief — for left-leaning independents to vote for the weakest GOP candidates, for instance. But that seems an overstated concern. Liberal voters are far too focused on meaningful Democratic primaries to bother to monkey with their Republican brethren (something they can already do now, incidentally, merely by changing party registration).

Ideally, Maryland Democrats would make their primaries open, too — something that would significantly advance the cause of democracy in Baltimore City and to a lesser extent in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. But they lack the incentive to change. Maryland is home to more than 630,000 voters registered as independents. An invitation to vote in the Republican primary would be a powerful tool toward winning their support in the general election.

Will the GOP see the light? Probably not. What's truly maddening about this is that everyone benefits when a political system is competitive. What check is there on the power of the Democratic Party in Maryland if Republicans won't field a credible challenger for statewide office? And by "credible" we mean the kind that could actually be elected in this state.

What the party needs is someone like Maine's current and former U.S. senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, whose middle-of-the-road positions appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. Mr. Ehrlich ran on such a platform 11 years ago and won, but he failed when it came to governance. The GOP won't get a second shot at the state's top jobs if they remain satisfied with winning an election once every quarter-century or so.

Dilute the Republican vote? Party leaders ought to be looking to do just that. Instead of Washington, they should take their cues from states like Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republican candidates have won over substantial numbers of non-Republican voters in recent elections. Oh, and what else do those states have in common? All have open primaries.

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