MarylandReporter.com welcomes Todd Eberly as a regular contributor. Eberly is associate professor of political science and Coordinator of Public Policy Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. We will be publishing his columns simultaneously with his own blog, The FreeStater.
By Todd Eberly
In a recent interview about the open seat for attorney general, I was quoted as saying:
“It speaks to the sorry state of the Republican party in Maryland… You’re not going to have Doug Gansler … you’ve got an open race, the potential for a divisive Democratic primary. If they want anyone to ever take them seriously, they’ve got to win some statewide offices every now and then, which means trying to build a bench instead of running these throwaway challenges.”
Apparently this annoyed Red Maryland’s Greg Kline. After taking the obligatory GOP talking point swipe against college professors (for the record, no one who knows me would ever think I read the Huffington Post) he suggested that the MD GOP has a significant and impressive bench of potential candidates.
Says Kline: “The good assistant professor [actually I’m an associate professor] is right that a lack of a candidate even being discussed does reflect poorly on the MDGOP but he is so wrong about the state party not having a bench or plenty of qualified, potential candidates…. Any potential AG candidate knows that they would be on their own running statewide. The state party is too much focused on creating a list of people to call and too little focused on what they are going to tell the person on the other end of the phone.”
Kline then goes on to explain why the MD GOP cannot get potential candidates to agree to run for office in the state.
“Candidate recruitment, like recruiting for a college football team, is about selling the experience and making someone want to be a part of something. This is exactly what the party isn’t doing.”
Kline then rattles off a list of what the MD GOP must do if it wants to recruit candidates. And Kline is spot on. Where Kline and I actually disagree is on just what constitutes “a bench of candidates.”
What makes a strong bench
To me, a strong bench consists of candidates preferably with some degree of name recognition and a clear willingness to run if asked. Even better are candidates already holding office. The party would be best served if they were able to tap candidates from among the swelling ranks of elected GOP officials at the county level.
Kline argues that the party has a deep bench simply because there are a lot of qualified potential candidates in the state – but these folks aren’t willing to run. To me, that’s not a bench. At best it’s a two-legged stool.
In 2010 the state GOP let Doug Gansler run unopposed for AG. Nationwide, 2010 was a fantastic year for the GOP — Maryland was a glaring exception that didn’t need to be. In the U.S. Senate race Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Eric Wargotz scored the highest level of support against Sen. Barbara Mikulski in two decades. With very little money and no debates, Wargotz neared 40% of the vote.
As I have argued in prior posts, Maryland is not a 2-to-1 Democratic state. If you look at actual election results it’s closer to a 60/40 state. Credible GOP candidates are able to hit that 40% mark, stronger candidates are able to exceed that share. But such strong candidates are rare in Maryland.
Michael Steele and Bob Ehrlich were each able to top that 40% mark. William Campbell and Anne McCarthy were quality comptroller candidates in 2010 and 2006. In 2014 the state GOP has the potential to have strong candidates for governor, and Campbell is likely to run again for comptroller.
Though I consider Harford County Executive David Craig to be the strongest gubernatorial candidate, Del. Ron George is a solid candidate as well and either could give the Democratic nominee a real fight. Assuming Craig or George actually campaign for the job (as opposed to Ehrlich’s lazy mess of a campaign in 2010), they should have no problem topping Ehrlich’s 42% from 2010 and could even achieve victory.
Quality candidates needed for all offices, but gerrymandering hurts
It’s important that the state GOP have quality candidates running for all statewide offices. Yes, they’d all face an uphill battle to win but a strong top of the ticket can boost turnout and help candidates down ballot cross the finish line in races for the state Senate, House of Delegates, county commissioners, or other local offices.
These down ballot winners then become the MD GOP’s real bench. Because of redistricting and Martin O’Malley’s political gerrymandering of state legislative districts, the MD GOP is going to have a tough time holding onto its meager 12 seats in the 47-seat state Senate. Falling below 12 seats would be a devastating blow to the morale of any already suffering party. The GOP needs to reach 19 seats in the Senate to truly have an impact as that’s the number needed to filibuster.
Gerrymandering makes that a tall order, improbable but not impossible — especially if the top of the ticket is strong. But at present, the state Republican party is just a mess. And so long as it is a mess the bench of candidates will be thin. Folks like Red Maryland’s Greg Kline, Mark Newgent, and Brian Griffith have been offering the state GOP a lot a free and good advice, but I’m not sure the state party is organized enough to listen.
Breaking the one-party monopoly
Though Kline may think that I’m some left-wing Huffington Post reading academic, the reality is that I’m an unaffiliated voter who would very much like to see Maryland’s one party monopoly broken. I may disagree with the GOP on a host of issues, but the same can be said of the Democrats. I have no preference for one party over the other.
What I do want is a vibrant and open debate of the issues, I want deliberation and not one-party hegemony. I want the 40% of Marylanders who consistently vote against the Democrats to have a voice equal to their numbers, instead of the gerrymandered mess that has effectively held the GOP to less than 30% of the seats in the General Assembly and only one seat among the state’s congressional delegation. Republicans have figured out how to win and be relevant in states like New Jersey and Massachusetts.
There simply is no excuse for the party’s continued problems in Maryland.