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May 22, 2007

State GOP "Sulking"

Roy Meachum

One-time U.S. Senate candidate and former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele used the S-word. It happened Saturday night in Annapolis. Before about 200 of the Republican faithful, the Washington Post reported; he declared:

"...The sulking, the moping, the wailing and gnashing of teeth is over."

The crowd of hopefuls also heard their top man in the House of Delegates on the same subject, as The Post's John Wagner quoted:

"What we've seen is a very hard leftward lurch and a misinterpretation of the results of the last election," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R., Calvert). "Eventually, there's going to be a backlash. If that's the case, the pendulum could swing back our way very quickly."

In that same spirit, ex-Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., has sent out letters seeking contributions, with the implied promise the Democrats in Annapolis will scuttle themselves; and Maryland voters will be back for more GOP.

Don't count on it, folks.

In the first place, as I have written before, Mr. Ehrlich's 2002 election was a fluke, made possible only because of infighting among the opposition party's bigwigs. Those who didn't care for candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend were wooed to the Republican way by the likes of William Donald Schaefer, the once-all powerful chief Democrat. He was not alone in being leery of the election of a woman who couldn't be "reached." Lieutenant Governor Townsend owed nothing to anyone, especially the man who occupied the top state office.

In the campaign's final days, Parris Glendening did everything but endorse Mr. Ehrlich; the then-governor beat up nominee Townsend every way that came to his petty, vicious mind.

In autumn of 2002, the grief, sorrow and anger from the murderous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were very fresh. George W. Bush and his party seemed chosen to lead America on what he at one point called "a crusade" against terrorism. The invasion of Iraq didn't happen until the following March.

Voting against the president at that time could be - and was - interpreted as standing with the enemy and the forces of godlessness. The same sentiment dominated the 2004 national elections, which supported Maryland GOP illusions their party was destined to rule from the White House and Capitol Hill for years to come.

That roseate view encouraged whatever tendency state Republicans' nurtured that they were going to "own" Annapolis. Since many of the opposition read the signs and omens the same way, what was never more than hopeful speculation became accepted "fact."

So much so that Governor Ehrlich split his winning 2002 ticket, enticing his African American lieutenant governor to mount a charge for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul Sarbanes. Reading the list of contributors to Mr. Steele's run for Capitol Hill provides an insight into corporate Maryland.

As last November's election approached, only someone with a vested interest could anticipate a Republican victory. Only the foolish and naive really believed the administration would turn around the Iraq situation. Early competitors for the Democratic White House nomination trumpeted the failing war as the chief means to unseat Mr. Bush.

If every insurgent were to lay down his weapon by next summer, it would already be too late to turn sentiment in favor of the president and against those who want him gone.

All the GOP insiders' cheerleading in the world, like Mr. Steele's, cannot alter that reality in this state, especially because of Mr. Ehrlich's rough-and-ready partisanship. This statement should not be interpreted solely in the numbers of Republicans put into jobs held by Democrats under the ex-governor.

Maryland above all states, with the exception of my native Louisiana, should be accustomed to "politics as usual." That pretty much is what is, with the exception of the peacock posturing of certain low-level GOP agents. Spewing contracts among "friends" was hardly cause for righteous indignation among the once-insiders-then-out. It certainly didn't help Mr. Ehrlich's cause to antagonize Maryland's most significant newspaper.

The feud with Baltimore's Sun did not begin or end with blackballing a pair of the paper's employees. The rest of the press viewed the exercise in gubernatorial power as meaningless and petty. Hopes that the media might be more "accommodating" applied principally to electronic types who are completely dependent on access.

While not at all related, the Washington Post's endorsement of Robert Ehrlich against Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley was the most stunning event of the Republican governor's history with the media. It was a first-class example of the separation, on good papers, of the editorial and news departments. Otherwise, there was no change in print publications' tone after the Sun's reporter and columnist were blacklisted.

If anything, the Baltimore paper seemed to me to step up its coverage while displaying no overt malice toward the politician. In other words, Mr. Ehrlich lost the fight he never should have started.

While readers may disagree, his greatest defeat came in a category that he could have won.

With his charisma, intellect and other skills, Bob Ehrlich had the potential to reach the goal his party wanted above all. The young governor and his good-looking, smart wife could have increased significantly the number of registered Republicans. He might have gone a long way to making Maryland a two-party state. He didn't.

Breezing through, Democrat Ben Cardin took the U.S. Senate seat vacated by fellow Democrat Sarbanes. Despite Michael Steele's warm public personality and a much-admired advertising campaign, the Republican lost by 10 percentage points. Their race mustered massive outside help, especially from the GOP, which was accused of fudging - if not outright breaking - election laws. It was a real heartbreaker for Mr. Lincoln's party in this state.

As a part of the Old South, held out of the Confederacy literally by Yankee bayonets, Maryland shares with other below-Mason Dixon states a heavy African American minority. Their consistent support for Democrats has driven Republicans to distraction.

Backing Mr. Steele, the first of his race to win a statewide race, for lieutenant governor, the GOP, nationally and statewide, worked hard to do everything "right." By and large, they succeeded. Their candidate still lost.

As always, the answer lies in the "numbahs." The last month available, March, the official record shows some 1,700,000 voters preferring the Democratic Party, against about 904,000 who belong to the GOP. That nearly 2-1 ratio has become traditional; it's automatically quoted when talking about Maryland politics.

After four years' control of Annapolis, Republicans made no dramatic breakthrough. With Democrats settling in again, acting as if they own the place, which in a real sense they do, there is no cause for GOP cheers.

Put another way, Michael Steele and the state can expect more Republican "sulking...moping...wailing and gnashing of teeth..."

Wanting a real two-party system, as my record of endorsing both Republicans and Democrats shows, I am disappointed. It may not happen in my lifetime. Pity!

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