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With an eye toward 2018, state GOP will pick new leaders

A month after a presidential election in which voters reaffirmed Maryland's position as one of the bluest states in the nation, state Republicans will gather Saturday to choose new leadership — a contest likely to signal the direction the party will take heading into the 2018 governor's race.

Four candidates are running for a shot to lead the Maryland Republican Party, which will play a central role in working to re-elect GOP Gov. Larry Hogan and prove that his upset win two years ago in a Democratic state was not a fluke. The job will also involve bringing together a fractious party split even further this year by President-elect Donald Trump's campaign for the White House.

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Some Republicans said they view the race as the latest internal struggle between long-established centrists and newcomers who backed Trump's campaign. Whatever the outcome, Republicans seem to agree that re-electing Hogan in 2018 is the paramount goal.

"2018 is the biggest election of our lives," said Brian Griffiths, a former member of the GOP's executive committee and influential blogger. "Once Governor Hogan wins, that means the Democrats will not control redistricting, and then we can draw fair congressional districts for the first time in generations."

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Officials are due to draw new congressional and legislative districts during the term of the next governor in 2021. In the past, Democrats have dominated that process, which has allowed them to turn a state that sent four Democrats and four Republicans to the House in 2001 to one that now sends seven Democrats and one Republican.

A Hogan re-election would give Republicans some say in the next round of redistricting. The governor has backed an independent process, as is practiced in California, New Jersey and other states.

Hogan has not made an endorsement in the contest for the party chairmanship — even though it will be important for him to have an ally in the position. Steve Crim, Hogan's 2014 campaign manager and current political adviser, said the governor decided to stay out of the internal race because he "believes in grass roots-up leadership."

One candidate for the job, Sajid Tarar of Owings Mills, was the head of American Muslims for Trump. He spoke at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this year, which Hogan decided against attending.

Tarar "is a terrific fit for the chairman of the party and is exactly what we need to show the world that we are indeed inclusive of everyone," said Joe Collins Jr., a member of the Baltimore City Republican Central Committee who helped organize Trump's campaign in Maryland.

"As far as I am concerned, there is no other qualified candidate to run the party, and the others running for chair are ancient relics of a party that is done with the same old cliches and busted ideas," he said.

Others — including state Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, who ran a disciplined but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Maryland's open Senate seat this year — are backing Dirk Haire, a lawyer and longtime party activist who has also served as Hogan's campaign attorney.

"He is smart and helpful and involved," Szeliga said. "He possesses all the qualities that I think are necessary."

The next chairman is to be selected by more than 300 county party officials on Saturday and will serve a two-year term. The winner will replace Diana Waterman.

"The biggest job of the next chairman and the next leadership will be to make sure that we re-elect Governor Hogan and hold our seats in General Assembly," Waterman said.

Maryland Republicans had an outstanding year in 2014. Not only did Hogan beat Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown in an upset, the party picked up several seats in the General Assembly.

Since those successes, the state GOP has also significantly improved its fundraising.

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But while the wins had some state Republicans pining for a more purple Maryland, last month's presidential election appeared to deflate those aspirations. Democrat Hillary Clinton captured nearly 60 percent of the Maryland vote, giving her one of her largest margins of victory anywhere in the country.

State Republicans caution against reading much into the results in a presidential election year, when turnout is traditionally higher than in gubernatorial election years.

They also point to Hogan's high popularity, which has crested 70 percent in Baltimore, a Democratic stronghold, along with more traditionally Republican parts of the state.

Several Democrats, including Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, are considering challenging Hogan in 2018.

The other candidates running for the Republican Party chairmanship include William Campbell, a former Amtrak official who has previously run for state comptroller, and William T. Newton, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Maryland's 7th Congressional District this year.

Tarar said he wanted to focus on expanding the party's tent, "opening up the doors for diversity," and building a connection between Trump's White House and the Hogan administration. He said he was disappointed Trump didn't perform better in Maryland, which has not backed a Republican for president since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

"I was hoping for and I was looking forward to the state of Maryland becoming a red state," he said. "That's one of the reasons why I'm running."

Haire agreed.

"Maryland has historically been a difficult state for Republicans," he said. "I believe we are making very good progress on changing that."

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