WASHINGTON — In the wake of a bruising election that brought more lost ground for Republicans, the Maryland party is torn over how to engineer its comeback.
Prominent national Republicans have suggested the GOP must embrace more moderate positions to diversify its base, or risk shutting itself out of the White House for the foreseeable future.
Maryland Republicans, after losing seven of eight races in the U.S. House of Representatives, one in the U.S. Senate and across the board for ballot referendums, say their problems at the ballot box can be solved not by changing their principles, but by changing how they talk about them.
“Maryland is not the blue state that people make it up to be,” said former Republican Senate candidate Dan Bongino, who placed second in a three-way race against Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and independent Rob Sobhani. “Everybody forgets that in 2002 we had four Republican congressmen. Are you telling me in 10 years the state has changed so dramatically no Republican has a chance and it’s beyond saving? What happened in 10 years? Did all the Republicans move out and a bunch of Martians move in?”
A common thread among Republicans clamoring for change is the need to challenge Democrats’ grassroots operation, as well as building on the party’s growing bench of county-level officials. Republicans control 159 of Maryland’s locally elected offices to Democrats’ 157, according to the Maryland GOP.
Some Republicans, such as tea party activist Charles Lollar, have infiltrated Democratic strongholds to search for new supporters.Lollar, who runs the conservative political action committee New Day Maryland, has met with the NAACP and CASA de Maryland in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area in an attempt to make the GOP more palatable to black and Hispanic voters — blocs that have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in the last two presidential elections.
“The conservative movement has been branded as a racist movement since day one,” Lollar, who is black, said. “What the conservative movement has to do is to challenge that branding and change that mindset — and you’re not going to do that in a generation.”
Maryland Republicans also spy an opportunity in the state’s growing number of unaffiliated voters, which has doubled to 600,000 over the last decade. Yet Democrats can still claim an advantage of about 1 million more registered voters — as well as a much deeper roster of candidates.
Pundits have speculated both Bongino and Lollar could run for governor in 2014. Spurred by an online campaign to draft him, Lollar said there is a “99.5 percent” chance he will run to replace a term-limited Gov. Martin O’Malley. Bongino confirmed he will run for “something.”
Another obstacle for Republicans to overcome is the state’s new congressional districts, which have been named some of the most gerrymandered in the country. Democrats in Annapolis were able to pass the districts because of their comfortable majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly. The districts survived a referendum and will remain in place until 2022.
“That’s one of the bad things about one-party rule,” said state Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Carroll and Howard County Republican who has been vocal about his support for same-sex marriage. “The only way we’re going to have a two-party system in Maryland is for people to support Republican efforts.”
Some voters remain skeptical that Republicans’ self-examination heralds a change for the party, regardless of messages that the GOP may be softening its tone.
“Some of these guys seem to think that all they need is a new haircut and a nicer suit,” said Patrick Boyle, a former contributor to The Washington Post and longtime Republican voter from Olney who recently turned independent. “They’re isolating people, and you don’t bring people back just by being more polite.”
Where Maryland Republicans disagree is on the role of its leadership. Brian Griffiths, chairman of the Maryland Young Republicans and a co-editor of the conservative Red Maryland blog, have called for Maryland Republican Party Chairman Alex Mooney’s resignation, citing a lack of confidence in the former state senator.
Mooney, who flirted with a run for the U.S House of Representatives in Western Maryland’s 6th District, has dismissed the dissent, saying Republicans should focus their criticism on Democrats.
“We had a tremendous opportunity to strike at the heart of the Democratic agenda and … Governor O’Malley’s political ambitions, and I don’t think personally that Chairman Mooney had his eyes on the ball when it came to the referendums,” Griffiths said. “We need to have a chairman who’s dedicated to the business of the party, not someone who’s using it as a way station.”
While support for the referendums on in-state tuition for some undocumented immigrants, the new congressional districts and same-sex marriage didn’t perfectly mirror party affiliation, the questions were brought to the ballot by Republican-led signature drives.
Lollar blamed the GOP’s poor showing on the fundraising issues facing a perpetual minority party, while Bongino said he would like to see the Republican leadership adopt a data-driven approach to registering and turning out voters.
“I think where we suffer in Maryland is I’ve yet to see a strategic plan forward,” Bongino said. “We get into this circular firing squad, and when we’re not shooting, we’re just shouting at each other.”
Republicans will have a chance to see if their soul searching has paid off in 2014, when — in addition to the governor’s race — the 188 members of the Maryland General Assembly are up for re-election.
“We’re beaten up, we’re wounded, we have two black eyes and a broken arm,” Bongino said. “But the broken arm will heal, the black eyes will go away. Don’t underestimate us.”