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.
When Ferguson signed on with the Maryland GOP, one of his first stops was party headquarters, a grand old office building just off of Annapolis’s Church Circle. The historic building “had a nice façade but it was not good, functionally,” Ferguson recalls. “The floors were falling in, there was mold, the heat and central air didn’t work, and it was really expensive.” Annapolis politicos often pointed to the gutted building with a lonely bust of Ronald Reagan in the window as a physical manifestation of the party’s woes.
One of Ferguson’s first priorities was relocating to smaller, cleaner offices just down the street—for a third of the price. The GOP needed every dollar it could get: When Ferguson opened the books, he discovered that not only was the party losing politically, it was also hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. “Now, at least, we’ve paid off the telemarketers, the direct mailing, and all our other bills are current,” he says. He next got to work fundraising, and the party brought in nearly $1.2 million in 2012.
Then he unveiled the big win strategy, “Growing Our Party 2020.” If it isn’t clear from the title, it sets the bar for victory pretty low. Ferguson’s plan emphasizes winning local elections, in which Maryland Republicans do much better, over big-ticket races for the Senate or the governor’s office.
“If we can’t play at the opponent’s level, we have to define our own success,” he says. “We need more people to run for the state senate, for the House of Delegates, and for the local positions. There are people who want to run for the governor’s office that are wholly qualified, could be great state senators, and could win there, but they don’t want to run for that seat.” He adds, “Everyone wants to be the top martyr, but we’re saying, run in a legislative race in your hometown that you can win. A rising tide raises all boats.”
It’s temperate advice in a year in which all tides seem to be against them. In the middle of this year’s tough session, Ferguson’s boss, state party chairman Alex X. Mooney, resigned and moved to West Virginia, where he is contemplating a congressional run. It wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence in the party’s future.
Mooney left his vice chair, real estate agent Diana Waterman, in charge of the fractured party. Many of the hostilities at the convention arose because the party had denied bloggers, including a small but vocal group of conservative bloggers, media credentials. The bloggers said that they were being shut out because they have the audacity to criticize party leadership. State party leadership said the bloggers were just whiners trying to score free convention tickets. In a state where Republicans need all the media attention they can get, it’s an unfortunate quarrel.
At the convention, delegate Justin Ready (R-Carroll County) led a workshop for potential candidates, largely aimed at healing the rift between grassroots and party leaders, one he sees playing out nationally. The 31-year-old Ready, a freshman delegate, is considered a “young gun” of the party. He was one of the few officials at the convention who’s respected by both party leaders and activists.
The goal, he told the crowd, was to stick to principles while keeping in mind where the voters are coming from. “We can’t afford to write anyone off,” he said. “When we lose, it’s easy to form the circular firing squad and blame [each other], but the truth is, it’s hard in our state, and when you don’t have the senators, you don’t have the delegates, you don’t have the votes—you can’t make a difference. We can’t do it if we’re not united.”
Diana Waterman was officially elected to a full term as chair on Saturday and supported her rival, Collins Bailey, in his bid for vice-chair, a promising sign for party unity. But Waterman takes a very different tack from Ferguson. She’s not content to wait until 2020, when the next census might lead to more favorable redistricting, to go for the big seats.
Term limits mean O’Malley cannot try for a third term in 2014. Waterman calls the governorship “an open seat, with no clear frontrunner on the Democrat side.” She adds, “When they’re fighting, that helps us. It opens the door a little wider.”
The new Maryland Republican party chair doesn’t sound like a supporter of “Growing Our Party 2020.” “Is it going to be a definite challenge to win back the governor’s seat [next] year or four years from [then]? Yes. But absolutely and totally unattainable? No.”
Kate Havard is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.