GOP struggles to overcome adversity

The director of the Maryland Republican Party resigned without notice. One of its state delegates was arrested for the second time on a serious alcohol-related charge. And a virtual civil war broke out over who should replace a leading senator who's moving to Texas.

And that's just the past week's news for the state's embattled minority party.

Over the last year, Maryland Republicans have lost one of their two seats in Congress, absorbed defeats in several statewide referendums and watched as their previous party chairman resigned and decamped to West Virginia.

And during the 90-day General Assembly session, Republicans could only watch in frustration as Gov. Martin O'Malley and the legislature's Democrats passed bill after bill reviled by the GOP.

"We as a party are trying to prove chaos theory," said Brian Griffiths, a member of the state Republican Party executive committee and a contributing editor to the conservative Red Maryland Web radio show.

The party's lonely struggle against the state's dominant Democrats — who hold all statewide offices and majorities in both houses of the Assembly — has yet to breed much unity. Instead, Republicans have been bitterly denouncing fellow Republicans in a struggle over who will succeed former Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, who unexpectedly resigned this summer, in the Upper Eastern Shore's 36th District.

The brouhaha in the 36th is playing out at a time when GOP officials are still wondering about the abrupt departure of party executive director David Ferguson, who announced his resignation at Monday's executive board meeting and reportedly left without giving notice.

Ferguson, the party's top paid staff member for the past 21 months, denied any conflict. He said he had another opportunity and "decided it was time to move on." Party sources, however, said Ferguson was fed up with the leadership of party Chairman Diana Waterman. Waterman, who succeeded former state Sen. Alex Mooney when he left Frederick County last spring to seek a congressional seat in West Virginia, could not be reached for comment.

Griffiths said one of the reasons Waterman was chosen to succeed Mooney was a hope that she would be able to hold on to the party's paid workers. "We're now down to just one paid staff member, and that's the receptionist," Griffiths said.

Of the party's various woes, the one getting the most attention in party circles this week was the battle in the 36th, where 14 applicants were vying to be named to the Senate seat representing Cecil, Caroline, Kent and Queen Anne's counties. Under the Maryland Constitution, when a lawmaker leaves midway through a term, the governor must name the successor chosen by the legislator's party's local central committees.

The contest to succeed Pipkin took a surprise twist late Friday when the Caroline County Republican Central Committee voted to support Del. Steve Hershey of Queen Anne's, according to Caroline party chairman Robert Willoughby. That action follows a victory for Hershey on Thursday night in Kent.

The action in Caroline could put Hershey over the top unless Cecil County Del. Michael Smigiel can hold his support in his home county and persuade the Queen Anne's County party to switch its previous backing of former state Republican Chairwoman Audrey Scott to him.

That might be a hard sell for Smigiel, a favorite of the party's libertarian wing, because it would leave the choice between the two to the Democratic governor. And O'Malley is the GOP's ideological nemesis.

Hershey came on late in what appeared just hours earlier to be a struggle between two bitterly opposed factions of the party, one represented by U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris and the other by Pipkin and Smigiel. While Harris insisted he was neutral in the race, Smigiel and some conservative bloggers identified him as the Machiavellian force behind the emergence of Scott.

A former member of GOP Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Cabinet, Scott appeared to have won the support of Kent in a preliminary tally. But on Thursday, tea party Republicans labeled her a liberal and a "RINO" — Republican in Name Only — and her support evaporated.

Hank Piasecki, a member of the Kent committee, said one reason the county party finally decided to back Hershey was that he seemed to be aligned with neither faction.

The choice seems unlikely to bring peace to the party. Smigiel has insisted that he will run for the Senate in the GOP primary next year regardless of who is chosen to serve the remaining year of Pipkin's term. Meanwhile, Hershey said he will run if selected.

"This is a Republican Party that tends to eat itself," said conservative activist Andrew Langer, a Red Maryland radio talk-show host and one if 14 who applied to succeed Pipkin.

The prospect of a party-fracturing primary has some Republicans worried, even though the 36th is one of the state's most conservative districts. "It's entirely possible that the right Democrat — a conservative, free-market Democrat — could slip in," Langer said.

In the General Assembly, the GOP faces multiple challenges. Some Republicans wish Anne Arundel County Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr. would resign after a drunken-driving arrest that came as he was awaiting sentencing on a conviction for boating under the influence. Even if Republicans can cut into the Democrats' 35-12 advantage in the Maryland Senate, they will have lost valuable experience with Pipkin's resignation and the coming retirements of Sens. Nancy Jacobs and Barry Glassman of Harford County and Allan Kittleman of Howard.

Compounding the party's divisions are concerns about its finances. In January, it reported debts of more than $352,000 and cash on hand of just over $66,000.

Ferguson said those figures were just a "snapshot in time" at the end of a losing election. He said the party should be "in a strong financial posture" in time for next year's election.

But Griffiths was less positive, saying the party's recent Red, White and Blue Dinner, featuring 2012 vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, "made a profit but did not meet expectations."

There are some consolations for the embattled GOP. Republicans hope that a contentious Democratic primary to succeed O'Malley as governor could help open the door for a strong GOP challenger. At the county level, Glassman is a favorite to become the new Harford executive. And Kittleman, who is running for county executive in Howard, is expected to challenge the Democrats' recent dominance there.

Some party activists believe their recruiting for state Senate, House of Delegates and other down-ballot races is going well.

"There's always opportunity in diversity," said Griffiths. "It sounds a little loopy to say it, but we aren't in the worst position in the world right now from the perspective of electoral politics."

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