By Dan Menefee
The internal party struggle over filling the Senate seat vacated by Sen. E.J. Pipkin in District 36 on the Upper Shore remains in flux as freshman Del. Steve Hershey of Queen Anne’s County secured the official vote of the Kent County Republican Central Committee on Thursday.
This reversed a Tuesday vote that went to Audrey Scott, the 77-year-old Queenstown resident and former Republican State Party Chair, who some people involved in the process claim has been the choice of U.S. Rep. Andy Harris.
UPDATED: Harris put out a strong statement Friday afternoon denying he was supporting anyone in the race.
“Congressman Harris said from the very beginning that he is staying neutral in the State Senate race because of the many qualified candidates," said Press Secretary Matt Sauvage. "Any accusations to the contrary are false."
The statement was put out in reaction to an earlier version of this story quoting anonymous sources that Harris had admitted he was supporting Scott at a Thursday's meeting of the "Conservative Rant" on Kent Island.
Several candidates in the race have supported Harris in past campaigns, including Scott, former U.S. Senate nominee Eric Wargotz and former Del. Richard Sossi, a current member of his staff.
The Republican central committees of the four Upper Shore counties in District 36 -- Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne's --with a total of 32 members get to send a nominee for the seat to Gov. Martin O'Malley for his appointment.
Each county gets one vote, and if it is a tie vote, O'Malley gets to choose either one as the new senator. The governor has 15 days to act after the Sept. 10 deadline for nominations.
Harris staff involved
Republican blogger Jeff Quinton at the Quinton Report said a Harris staffer posted comments on his site Thursday from a computer in Harris's D.C. office -- reviling Smigiel and lauding Pipkin’s resignation.
This “pretty much kills any remaining denials of Harris involvement in the race on behalf of Audrey Scott against Mike Smigiel,” Quinton wrote.
UPDATED: The statement from Harris's press secretary implicitly confirmed that a part-time staffer had posted anti-Smigiel comments using a House of Representatives computer.
Said Sauvage: "Furthermore, staff are permitted and encouraged to express their personal views through the political process though they must not do it on the taxpayers’ time. The personal opinions of members of Congressman Harris’ staff do not reflect his views. We plan to reiterate to our staff that inappropriate use of government computers is not going to be tolerated."
The push to nominate Scott secured an unexpected upset Tuesday in the Queen Anne’s Republican Central Committee, which voted 4-3 for Scott. Smigiel said that two committee members reneged on personal promises to support him.
Central Committee member alleges trickery
Mary Dietz, a member of the committee, told the small crowd Thursday at the Conservative Rant that she was tricked into voting for Scott and thought Smigiel would win the vote that night.
Calls to Dietz were not returned, but sources who attended the Rant on Thursday said Dietz appeared distraught in front of 20 or more attendees and said she would do anything to help Smigiel.
A source close to the Queen Anne’s Republican Central Committee said that Dietz voted with the understanding that Scott would simply be a placeholder and step down for the 2014 primary. But Scott flipped her position and said she would run as the incumbent.
Scott also told the Kent’s central committee that she would run in 2014, but has since told a committee member in Caroline that she would step down after serving the last year of Pipkin’s term.
Most of the sources in this story are reluctant to talk on the record because they have connections with Harris, the delegates or other candidates.
No love for 'Smipkin'
Harris has no love for his political rival Pipkin, who opposed Harris in his first run for Congress, and the congressman sees Smigiel as an extension of the former Senate minority leader. Political opponents of the duo in Cecil County refer to them as "Smipkin."
The Caroline Republican Central Committee can bring it over the top for Hershey but has yet to hold interviews with the candidates. Committee Chair Robert Willoughby said Thursday evening that he is still in the process of scheduling interviews with candidates for the nomination.
He said he was aware of the Sept. 10 deadline to submit the name of their nominee to O’Malley.
Smigiel hangs on Caroline vote
Smigiel was considered the frontrunner when Pipkin resigned on Aug. 12. Smigiel secured the vote of the Cecil County Republican Central Committee on Wednesday.
Smigiel told MarylandReporter.com on Friday that he should secure Caroline based on prior assurances from committee members there.
"If members in Caroline honor the personal assurance they've repeatedly given me in their support, I should win the nomination," Smigiel said. "But with the amount of outside influence exerted on this process, nothing at this point would surprise me."
Republicans generally believe that Hershey would win the favor of O’Malley rather than endure Smigiel’s ferocious opposition to the Democratic leadership and O'Malley as he has shown on gun control legislation, tax increases and many other proposals.
Republicans also speculate that Democratic Senate President Mike Miller would rather deal with Hershey or Scott in the Senate than the rambunctious Smigiel.