It’s not easy being a Maryland Republican. The little state on the Chesapeake is quickly becoming one of the bluest in the country, led by a high-profile governor with presidential ambitions.
In November, voters rebuffed two Republican-backed initiatives, thus upholding same-sex marriage and approving in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. When the legislature convened in January, Governor Martin O’Malley, feeling the momentum from his ballot-box victories, laid out an ambitious agenda: repeal the death penalty, pass some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation, and raise the gas tax by as much as 13 to 20 cents per gallon by mid-2016.
Because the Republicans are very much the minority party, there was little they could do to stop it. By the time the session ended April 8, O’Malley had gotten pretty much everything he wanted. And so the Maryland Republican party retreated to Timonium, Maryland, for their spring convention, to lick their wounds, fight amongst themselves, and decide who could best bring their party out of the wilderness.
The Maryland Republican party is highly dysfunctional. At the convention, there were two near-fistfights in two days—one involving a gubernatorial candidate. It is plagued with infighting and weighed down by scandal and, at times, something close to nihilism. “Sometimes it felt like we were running around rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, you know, praying for the iceberg to just hit,” delegate Susan McComas (R-Harford County) says when asked to evaluate the legislative session.
Party members arrived at the convention Friday night, April 19, to find the hotel lobby fitted out with conflicting sets of signs promoting three different candidates for state party chairman and several long-shot candidates for governor—there was no single banner declaring it the Maryland GOP convention. But as the night wore on, it became clear that despite internal conflicts, Maryland Republicans, in their hearts, are united around a kind of pride in being the minority.
“The Republican legislators in Annapolis, they were like the 300 at Thermopylae,” mused one failed state senate candidate, as he stared ardently into the distance. “They knew they were going to lose on the gun bill, but they fought like tigers anyway—they fought like Spartans.”
Heartwarming stuff. But in the cruel light of day, the state of the party looks far less romantic. In 2001, Maryland had an evenly split congressional delegation—four Democrats and four Republicans. In 2002, one of those congressmen, Robert Ehrlich, became Maryland’s first Republican governor elected since Spiro Agnew in 1966. Just over a decade later, Maryland Republicans have a single congressman and no control at the state level.
In the Maryland statehouse, the Democrats have supermajorities in both houses: The 47-member state senate contains 14 Republicans; the 141-member House of Delegates has 43. Come 2014, those Republicans will face reelection in a new, aggressively gerry-mandered map that will squeeze them out even further.
To make matters worse, some Republican representatives are a heavy drag on a party that needs all the help it can get. Delegate Don Dwyer returned to the capital this session facing the very Annapolitan charge of boating while intoxicated. Dwyer admits that alcohol was involved, but denies responsibility for the accident that fractured a 5-year-old girl’s skull. The House reprimanded another Republican for inserting language into a bill that would have directly benefited his real estate business. And mere steps from the statehouse, former Anne Arundel County executive John Leopold was found guilty of misconduct in office after a drawn-out, sordid trial revealed he used his state security detail to facilitate weekly bowling-alley parking-lot rendezvous with his girlfriend.
Certainly, Maryland Democrats have had their own share of scandal. A Prince George’s County delegate, Tiffany Alston, was recently removed from office for misdemeanor theft, using state funds to pay for her wedding. But Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by two-to-one. They can afford screw-ups; Republicans cannot.
David Ferguson, the Maryland Republican party’s executive director, has a many-faceted plan for the party’s revival. Ferguson comes from a big Alabama football family, and in rolled-up sleeves and a baseball hat, he’s coach-like in his demeanor—chipper and determined to convert the Bad News Bears Republicans into a winning team. “I’m a sucker for big challenges,” he says.