Maryland local offices redden, even as state offices remain blue

Less than a month after bruising top-of-ticket losses on Election Day, Maryland Republicans have quickly discovered life after Ehrlich, seating a new lineup of local elected officials on the party's bench and fielding a surprisingly diverse range of candidates for state chairman.

The resounding defeat of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who was seeking a return as governor, solidified Maryland's standing as among the most heavily Democratic states. Gov. Martin O'Malley coasted to re-election, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski easily won a fifth term. Ehrlich's loss also signaled the end of an era for the state's beleaguered minority party, which for better than a decade was largely defined and dominated by the telegenic former congressman who in 2002 was selected as the state's first Republican governor in a generation.

But in a little-noticed election night accomplishment, Republicans picked up three dozen local government and courthouse positions across the state, including sought-after seats in Baltimore and Frederick counties. When those officials are sworn in next month, 15 of the state's 23 counties will be run at the local level by Republicans. Nine of those won't have a single Democrat in their governing body -- a phenomenon Republican blogger Richard Cross described as "Maryland's red underbelly."

And after Republicans gained strength in Congress this year, some activists are sensing a renewed purpose for the party and see the new era as a chance to become a more powerful underdog in Maryland. The state party will choose a new leader early next month, and half a dozen people with a range of backgrounds and expertise are in the mix.

Don Murphy, a Republican campaign operative and former delegate from Baltimore County, said his party should be eager to move beyond Ehrlich. The party, he said, "needs to be a chorus of opposition, not a rock star with backup."

"We turned a pretty good election into a defeat," Murphy said, describing how Ehrlich's loss overshadowed the local gains. "It's our own fault. We focused all our attention like a laser on one person, one position. And we've got to stop doing that."

One way ahead, said Murphy and other Republicans, is the selection of a new party leader with fresh ideas.

At least three candidates have announced they'll seek the chairmanship at the convention next month in Annapolis, and several others are seriously considering a run.

Among the hopefuls are William Campbell, the former Amtrak and U.S Coast Guard financial executive who lost a bid this fall for Maryland comptroller; Mary Kane, a former secretary of state who was Ehrlich's running mate; and Mike Esteve, chairman of the Maryland College Republicans.

Eric Wargotz, a physician and outgoing Queen Anne's County commissioner who challenged Mikulski this year, is considering a run for chairman. He said the amount of interest in the party election "shows people are stepping up to take the helm."

"Republicans in Maryland have surprised a lot of observers following the election," he said. "The scuttlebutt was, 'Republicans are shattered. Republicans are destroyed.' We're showing them, 'Oh, no. Not at all.'"

Still, some of the chairman contenders said, the party must acknowledge its new chapter. Republicans did so well across the country and locally in Maryland, yet Ehrlich lost by 14 percentage points -- more than twice the margin of defeat as four years ago in a far worse national climate for the GOP.

"The fact that Bob Ehrlich has gracefully stepped aside is not only appropriate but necessary," Esteve said. "The Republican Party can psychologically close the chapter of the last 12 years and move unburdened into the future."

That view is one reason, Murphy said, that Kane's bid isn't universally well-received. "She's viewed as a continuation of Ehrlich World," he said. Kane's husband, John Kane, served as party chairman while Ehrlich was governor.

All but the urban areas

While leadership at the party is sorting itself out, Republicans are bubbling up from below.

By the party's count, in addition to picking up six seats in the 141-person House of Delegates, two dozen new Republicans will fill the ranks of local boards of commission and county councils.

Some of them won over voters by presenting themselves as moderates, while others appeared to be swept to power by the up-ticket congressional contests, political observers said.

"The best hope for the party is in the local offices," said Chris Cavey, a former Baltimore County Republican chairman. "On a county basis, we do very well. We rule everything but the urban areas, positively."

Local elected Republicans can be groomed to run for higher government positions and statewide offices, including governor, said Maryland Republican Party Chairwoman Audrey Scott, who is completing a one-year term. This year's Election Day, she said, "has given us the farm team that we so desperately need."

Cavey said the local officials could influence Maryland politics in a broader way.

"The Republicans elected to commissions and councils will end up being examples on the most local basis of the fact that fiscally responsible and conservative government works," he said. "And voters will be convinced by that."

Sleeper story

Another sleeper GOP success story: courthouses, which added about a dozen Republican officeholders to positions such as register of wills and clerk of court. While party ideology doesn't typically factor into in those roles, some say it shows evidence of a trend.

"It's a weather vane," said Harford County Executive David Craig, a Republican who coasted to re-election. Since voters rarely do research on the candidates for those lower-profile positions, he said, they're often picking a person based solely on his or her party.

The Republican impact on county governance was most evident in the three counties that flipped from Democratic control: Queen Anne's and Talbot on the Eastern Shore and St. Mary's in Southern Maryland. Others, including Calvert, deepened their red hue.

In St. Mary's County, Republicans will hold four of the five commission seats, and Democratic Commission President Jack Russell eked out a win by a mere 100 or so votes.

Nearby Calvert County, for the first time in anyone's memory, has an entirely Republican board of commissioners, leaving Wilson H. Parran, a two-term incumbent Democrat and board president, on the sidelines.

Baltimore County elected two Republicans, double the number currently on the council, even as voters there chose O'Malley over home-grown Ehrlich.

One of them was David Marks, a first-time candidate for an open seat in the district that includes Republican-friendly Perry Hall, but also the larger and more Democratic areas of Loch Raven and Towson.

On the campaign trail this summer and fall, Marks said, he "tried to avoid ideological issues" and presented himself "as a problem-solver who would cross party lines."

Marks said he adheres to party values such as term-limits and paring down government perks. As such, he said, he'll be proposing term limits for the council and will decline a taxpayer-financed vehicle.

The Lollar Effect

Other incoming commissioners and council members seem to have been ushered into office by headline races that attracted Republican voters in certain areas.

Todd Eberly, acting director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland, has a name for what he thinks happened in Southern Maryland: "The Lollar Effect."

Republican Charles Lollar, a former military officer, challenged Rep. Steny Hoyer and picked up about 35 percent of voters to Hoyer's 64 percent. But Lollar won in St. Mary's County, 57 percent to 42 percent and in Calvert County, 54 percent to 45 percent.

"Lollar did incredibly well here," Eberly said. "I think he motivated Republican voters, and it had down-ballot effects."

Eberly surmised that Republican Andy Harris, a state senator who knocked off Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil in the district that includes the Eastern Shore and Baltimore County, had a similar impact on some of those counties.

Maryland's red local map stands in contrast to the 188-member state legislature, which includes more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans.

Eberly says that's a testament to how effective Democratic legislators have been in protecting their ranks at the state level and in Congress, where voters this year selected Democrats for six of eight representatives.

"In some respects," Eberly said, "at the county level, that's the one thing you can't gerrymander."

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