WASHINGTON – Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, is at a loss for words.
With less than a month to go before the 2014 midterm elections and with control of the U.S. Congress up for grabs, the fate of Maryland’s eight congressional seats, he said, have already likely been decided.
Through a mix of congressional redistricting and demographic changes over the last decade, the Republican Party of Maryland is finding it increasingly difficult to mount a credible challenge for a congressional seat.
“In a lot of these areas, there’s no way a Republican can beat an incumbent Democrat,” he said. “It’s tough for us to get legitimate people to run when they look and they see what they’re up against.”
The numbers bear him out.
In 2000, despite the state’s Democrats holding a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in registered voters statewide, the divide among Maryland’s eight congressional seats was an even 4-to-4.
By 2002, newly drawn lines removed more than 27,000 registered Republicans from the 8th District, Maryland Board of Elections figures show, helping Democrat Chris Van Hollen pull off a narrow victory over Republican Connie Morella, who’d held the seat for 16 years.
In the 2nd District, Republican Robert Ehrlich gave up his seat in one of the most competitive districts in the state, but one which Republicans held since 1985, to launch his bid for governor. The opening let the seat fall to Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger, giving Democrats a 6-to-2 advantage. Ehrlich won the governor’s race.
Today, Democrats hold a 7-to-1 advantage. Democrat John Delaney won a tight race over Republican Roscoe Bartlett for the 6th District seat in 2013 after the district lines were redrawn to swap areas of conservative Carroll County with areas of predominantly liberal Montgomery County. As a result, the number of registered Republicans in the district dropped by 30 percent while Democrats grew by nearly 20 percent.
“It was a pretty bold power play,” Douglas Johnson, fellow at the Rose Institute, a political research center at Claremont McKenna College in California, said of the boundary change. “Maryland’s one of the most creative states when it comes to consolidating their power.”
More than 20 percent of the state’s registered Republicans are now in the 1st District, where Republican Andy Harris holds a comfortable lead for re-election.
In five of the seven districts held by Democrats, the number of registered Democrats make up more than two-thirds of registered voters, making it almost impossible for a Republican to mount a competitive race.
“It would be incompetent for them to try,” David Karol, professor of American politics at the University of Maryland, said of a state Republican who might consider running for Congress. “If you’re a Republican donor, you look at the figures and you say, ‘I have better things to do.’”
Maryland is not the only state that has drawn its congressional boundaries to benefit one party. Last week, a U.S. District Court ordered the Republican-controlled legislature in Virginia to redraw the state’s congressional map after it was found to have packed a large number of the state’s African-American voters into one district.
But not everyone is convinced that redistricting is the cause of Republican woes in Maryland.
Terry Lierman, former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, and chief of staff for the 5th District Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, said the gerrymandering argument is a cop-out for the Republican Party’s larger problems.
“To use gerrymandering as the reason is a shallow view of what’s happened in the state,” he said. “Take a look at yourselves and stop complaining.”
Lierman refers to the “thin pool” of Republican candidates who are running, and to the changing demographics in the state, which has seen it’s African-American and Hispanic populations grow dramatically while its white population has declined over the last decade.
Both blacks and Hispanics tend to vote Democratic.
According to a 2013 report by the Maryland Department of Planning, all of the population growth in Maryland between 2011 and 2012 was due to gains in minority population, and since the last census in 2010, all but 4,200 of the state’s 110,000 population increase came from minorities.
Corrogan Vaughn, the Republican candidate against Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings in the 7th District, said he’s running because he believes Cummings has let down his church by his support for gay marriage.
“I would question whether he can be a faithful Christian and be for gay marriage,” he said. Vaughn said he supports civil unions for gays but that marriage should be left for churches to perform.
Vaughn, who owns a fashion line called Vaughn Wear, is running in his sixth election, having run for the U.S. Senate four times and for president in 2008. He’s running again because, he said, he wants to stop the government from degrading the middle class.
“We need to grow our communities, not the government,” he said. “Letting the government have control over our lives is akin to slavery.”
Four of the 2014 Republicans candidates for congress haven’t reported campaign contributions, which aren’t required to be reported unless they’ve raised more than $5,000, according to the Maryland Board of Elections.
Cluster said his party supports all of the candidates, but does not give them money. He agreed the change in demographics is a challenge for Republicans, but said all of the outreach to minorities in the world won’t change that the districts are rigged to benefit one party.
“One seat is not a democracy,” he said. “If you believe so strongly that your ideas are better, let them go up against ours and let the people decide.”