The Maryland Republican Party is weighing whether to open its primary elections to independent voters, a plan some envision delivering statewide victories that have largely eluded the party.
A contingent frustrated with consistent Republicans losses in top offices has convinced party leadership to study inviting unaffiliated voters to help pick GOP candidates as soon as 2014, tapping into the fastest-growing segment of Maryland's electorate.
"We've had one Republican governor since the 1960s," said John Fiastro Jr., chair of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee and a leader in the open primary camp. "Some would say that allowing independents to vote would be the death knell in our party. I would say with the kind of record we have, we should study every available option."
The idea has inflamed opposition in the party's more conservative ranks, whose members predict partisan shenanigans by Democrats and a dilution of Republican values if independent voters could participate in primaries.
"If you let non-Republicans in, then you're handing over the party," said Larry Helminiak, second vice president of the Maryland GOP. "Why turn the election over to them?"
Internal bickering accompanied the Maryland Republicans' decision to open the 2000 primary election to independents, a move the party did not widely advertise at the time and has not seriously revisited until now.
The division within Maryland comes as Republicans across the country, many stunned by President Barack Obama's re-election, also grapple with broadening their appeal and court minorities, women and young voters. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in March called the election a "wake-up call" and unveiled a 97-page "autopsy" report that concluded the party must grow its membership and remake its image as the "narrow-minded" party of "stuffy old men."
In Maryland, the discussion concerns both party identity and winning the numbers game. Democrats outnumber Republicans here 2-to-1. While both parties have steadily gained voters over the past decade, the relatively smaller ranks of independent voters have boomed.
Since 2001, elections officials saw an 83 percent increase in registered voters who don't associate with any political party, growing from 13 percent of the electorate to 17 percent. Republicans agree they need those independents – who number more than 630,000 — to cast a ballot in their favor if the party hopes to secure the governorship or other top state jobs.
"We obviously need them," said state GOP chairwoman Diana Waterman. "We aren't going to win even if every one of our Republicans show up to vote."
Waterman cast the deciding vote Saturday to move ahead with investigating opening the GOP primary, though she refused to divulge her personal opinion on the move.
Under state law, each party can open its primary to unaffiliated voters by notifying the election board six months in advance. Twenty states, including Maryland, restrict primaries to voters registered with a party, while 17 have completely open primaries and 13 have a combination, according to 2012 data compiled by the nonpartisan group FairVote.
Waterman said she plans to name a task force of seven to nine people to investigate how open Republican primaries have worked in other states where the GOP is in the minority. The study could lead to a vote at the party's convention this fall, she said.
If such a change were approved, Maryland's unaffiliated voters would be able to help pick from a growing field of Republicans contending for the governor's mansion next year, a prospect some gubernatorial candidates endorse and others shun.
"I love the idea," said gubernatorial hopeful Ron George, a GOP state delegate from Anne Arundel County. "The only exposure that young people get [to politics] are the negative ads the candidates throw at each other. Anything we can do to broaden that we should do."
Harford County Executive David Craig, the other Republican declared for the race, said he'll leave the decision to the party, but he thinks Republicans can and do win statewide when they put up a good candidate with strong ideas.
Craig said the change, particularly in the absence of a similar choice by Maryland's Democrats, leaves the potential for sabotage by Democratic-leaning independent voters picking the weakest Republican candidate for the general election.
Helminiak, the GOP board member, said he used a similar ploy and expects such insurrections if Republicans open their doors to independents. A self-described "hard-core conservative," Helminiak said he was a registered Democrat until 1992 so he could undercut the party.
"I voted for the worst candidate," he said. "I voted for Jesse Jackson for president. I voted for George Wallace in the primary."
In the past four decades, a Republican candidate has won the Maryland election for governor only once — Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2002.
Rank-and-file Republicans are split on what sacrifices the party should make in the name of electing their candidates to top offices. Blogger Jackie Wellfonder, president of the Wicomico County Republican Club, considers herself undecided on the primary issue, but said the bottom line is, "if we want to get more conservatives elected, we're going to have to go outside our core."
For Brian Griffiths, chair of the Maryland Young Republicans, allowing independents to pick candidates — presumably those with broader appeal outside the party — seems a step too far.
"At the end of the day, Republicans should decide who their candidates are," he said. A pitch to independents can be made during the general election, a move he said "is a crucial issue because if we don't figure out a way to do it, the future of the party isn't very shiny."
Maryland Policy & Politics
Even if the inclusion of independent voters helps statewide office-seekers, it would come at the expense of conservatives in the local offices, argues Western Maryland Del. Michael J. Hough. He said districts like his and those on the Eastern Shore have deliberately been electing conservative politicians and the party doesn't need independent voters tipping the scales for Republicans to elevate the most electable candidate for statewide offices.
"People are smart. When they go to the polls, they think, 'This is our best shot,'" Hough said. Underlying the primary debate, he said, is "an assumption that Republicans are Neanderthal, knuckle-draggers who just vote for the most conservative candidates. That's just not what people do."
The last time Republicans opened their primary, former state delegate Don Murphy actively campaigned against it. Today, he's among the most passionate voices to give independent voters a role in Republican contests.
In 1999, Murphy said, he was part of a campaign that planted signs with an owl and the slogan, "Give a hoot, don't dilute." After he spent part of 2010 in Massachusetts — a Democratic-leaning state with primaries open to unaffiliated voters — and witnessed the election of U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, Murphy became convinced that Maryland could overcome its minority status by opening primaries.
"Republicans have very little chance of winning if we do not adopt this," Murphy said. "Is Maryland such an anomaly that we only can elect a Republican once every generation? Do we just get this loser mind set that we believe that it's never going to change, so we don't try? If we continue with the status quo, we're going to get the same outcome. … What's the point of winning the primary if you're going to lose the general?"