WASHINGTON – When Maryland Republicans form battle lines, they form a circle, quipped one GOP moderate.
He was discussing Democrat Frank Kratovil’s victory in the solidly Republican 1st Congressional District, where a tightening conservative grasp on the Maryland GOP prompted primary challenges to Rep. Wayne Gilchrest for being a liberal RINO — “Republican in name only” — and ended up losing the seat for the GOP.
State GOP Chairman Jim Pelura’s more conservative leadership after the 2006 election meant the party would no longer interfere in primaries. So when state Sen. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, took on Gilchrest, of Kennedyville, he not only got a green light from the party, but the enthusiastic endorsement of its de facto chief, former Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
Moderates, conservative Republicans argue, dilute the unity brought about by shared core values.
Pelura made clear that the party doesn’t endorse any candidate in a primary election, and attributed Harris’ loss in the general election to the “Obama wave” of Democratic victories. But Democrats say no candidate from their party could have beaten Gilchrest head on.
Ehrlich’s endorsement, early in the primaries, brought grassroots support to Harris’ challenge, and the influential anti-tax organization, the Club for Growth, stepped in with financial support.
“If Bobby Ehrlich, the former Republican governor, was backing Harris, where would the state party be?” asked Gilchrest in a recent interview.
Under former state GOP Chairman John Kane, who served from 2002 to 2006, the state party actively dissuaded primary challenges against incumbents.
“We protected incumbents, period,” said Kane, who hasn’t had contact with current party leaders since he left. They “didn’t think I was conservative enough.”
The protection policy meant directing candidates to another office, or, when that failed, an appeal to voters to support the incumbent.
Now, Kane said, “If they’re not Republican enough or conservative enough, (the party leaders) have no issue coming after a Republican.”
Pelura called his approach a “drastic change,” and said Kane’s policy amounted to the party sticking “its face in the primaries.”
The party’s responsibilities are to invigorate the grass roots, empower local central committees and “promote the Republican philosophy,” Pelura said.
That philosophy includes opposition to abortion and gay marriage, but small government, low taxes and personal freedom are the centerpiece, he said.
The rift between GOP moderates and conservatives is also a national phenomenon. Democrats have gained at least 50 House seats since 2006, and the division is evidence of a party in search of a new message and a new leadership, political analysts say.
“I think if you look at the winning Republican coalition, it consists of both social conservatives and social moderates,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Report. On the other side of the line, “(Democrats won) conservative districts because they’re running candidates who are pro-life, pro-gun, essentially social conservative positions.”
“To have a party in the majority it takes both camps,” he said.
That more inclusive approach was the gist of a Wall Street Journal op-ed that prefaced former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele candidacy for the Republican National Committee’s chairmanship last week.
Republicans too often define themselves by what they oppose, Steele wrote.
“We’re well equipped to rail against tax increases; but can’t begin to explain how we’ll help the poor. We exclude far better than we welcome.”
Gilchrest was anything but a team player, Kane said.
“What he did for the Republican Party of Maryland was next to nothing. He didn’t come to events, he was always sort of out on his own . . . but the fact is that people over in the 1st District . . . liked him.”
To bring the party back to prominence, Kane argued, will mean trading ideology for pragmatism and a degree of Gilchrest-style independence.
“The days of standing out on the street corner and saying I’m for guns are over.”
Gilchrest said he was always respectful of the party, but, “I saw my role as a member of Congress as something different than a member of a particular political party.”
“I’ve been an anathema to the NRA . . . I have always been pro-choice. I have been, instead of (for) smaller government, anti-regulation, for what works for government,” Gilchrest explained. “I’ve been squeezed out of the new Republican Party for a long time.”
The outgoing congressman isn’t alone in Maryland.
Jack Cole, the Caroline County Commissioner and a moderate Republican, followed Gilchrest’s lead to endorse Kratovil. Before the election, the Caroline County Central Committee attempted to sabotage his credibility in the county seat.
“I was assailed by one of the committee members for my moderate views, (and told) that I should come out of my Democratic closet,” Cole said. “At every level now, there’s this conservative litmus test that one must pass, and I don’t buy it.”
Cole hasn’t questioned his own loyalty to the party, but has become irritated by the increasingly ideological positions it’s taken. A hard line, he says, makes the minority party ineffective in Maryland, which he expects to be a blue state “at least for my lifetime.”
“What I really want to see is a party that’s inclusive,” he said. “This is what I thought we had. From what I’ve seen, the mainstream that was really trying to influence this election were slightly right of Attila the Hun.”
As Gilchrest argued and recent electoral trends suggest, the farther the party moves to the right to rally its base, the smaller the party will become. And more incumbents who compromise in order to govern will be excommunicated.
In 2002, Republicans controlled four of Maryland’s eight congressional districts. From 2002 to 2006, Ehrlich was Maryland’s governor. But since the last presidential election, Democratic voter registration has outpaced Republicans’ 10 to one, and last week, when absentee and provisional ballots sealed Kratovil’s narrow victory, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, became the only Republican to hold a state-wide office.
On Nov. 4, the nationwide electorate rejected Republicans’ claim to be the business-friendly party best able to handle the economy, and no longer trusts their judgment on the war in Iraq, said Michael Cain, the director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary’s College.
Republicans won’t have to abandon their beliefs in small government and low taxes, but getting the party out of the doldrums, he said, will require steering to the political center to get more moderates on board.