For most of the 21st century – 12 out of 22 years – Maryland has been governed at the top by two Republican governors. Howard County voters helped elect both of them in three elections, including a Black Republican lieutenant governor from their own county. Along the way, they also elected a Republican county executive.
No more. What may have for a time been a purple swing county in the middle of the state has turned decidedly blue.
Last November, Howard County voted by huge margins for all the statewide Democrats at the top of the ticket. They swept out the remaining two Republicans in the legislature, leaving just one Republican standing, a single County Council member from the west.
But at a Feb. 25 fundraiser in Glenelg, one of those Republican governors, Bob Ehrlich, had a message of hope for these forlorn Howard County conservatives. And he put some historical perspective on the GOP’s plight.
Ehrlich did not mention that Maryland had been a one-party state since the Civil War, but that was back when Democratic pols were the conservative, racist party of voter suppression.
At age 26, Ehrlich, an Arbutus native who had moved to northern Baltimore County, defeated a veteran Republican incumbent delegate by 93 votes.
“I became one of 13 Republican members of the House, and we were pretty irrelevant.” (Then as now, there were 141 delegates.) “We were pretty weak. We defined irrelevant.”
But “during that time, if you look at the philosophical orientation of the Democratic leadership, the Democratic chairs, especially in the Senate, it really was not a big deal … The dominant party in the state was in balance. There was a conservative wing, a moderate wing, a liberal wing.”
The State House leadership and particularly committee chairs were to “the right of center.” They were “businesspeople, owning bars and restaurants, signing the front of checks, hiring people, people who were entrepreneurs, who do capitalism. And as a result, the legislature and the state were fairly well in balance.”
“And so, Maryland generally ran in a moderate temperament, center left, but it was OK. And then over the last 15-20 years, you’ve seen what’s occurred.”
As Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee put it, “It’s not between right or left, it’s between normal or crazy.”
“Over time, as every election cycle unfolded, those Democrats disappeared, one by one by one by one. Those Democrats in Southern Maryland, Western Maryland, Eastern Shore were replaced by Republicans. Our high watermark was 55” Republican delegates and senators out of 188.
Democrats turn left
“Despite the fact that we grew, it wasn’t a net philosophical gain because we were replacing conservative Democrats with conservative Republicans. But during the same time the Democratic Party has gone left. And then they went further left. And then they took a left turn And they are where they are now.”
“I don’t have any words to describe.”
Using the football terms that the former Princeton line-backer is fond of, Ehrlich said the debates on issues decades ago were in the middle of the field and the parties were punting to each other.
“And that’s where the people were. And that’s where the state was, and their respective parties were as well.”
Now the debates are all in the “red zone” of the left.
“This is serious. The stakes have never been higher. Some subdivisions have really never been in play. And we cannot pretend that they are. Howard County is not one of them.”
“But this county can be in play. This is not a waste of your time. This is not a walk to nowhere despite the numbers. And that’s why I’m here quite frankly. It all comes down to understanding the distinction between where Democrats are today. And normal.”
The new governor, Wes Moore, is “a nice guy, “ Ehrlich said. “Obviously progressive, a progressive legislature, a very progressive state, very progressive time for the party in a one-party state. That is a formula for a lot of real issues for us.”
“So, my purpose here today is not to discourage you. Nor is it to encourage you. It to ask you to be real. This county is potentially in play in the right cycle, with the right candidate, with the right money, with the right organization and with a little luck.”
“It’s Maryland, sorry, that’s the bottom line. I can’t give that optimistic prognosis in other counties.”
“You all deserve better. We deserve better. Taxpayers deserve better. But to get out of the red zone, we have to win races. You got to win, you gotta win.
“That’s the only time things change. It’s the only thing that counts really in this business. We deserve better here. And that’s why we’re here today.”
Ehrlich did not mention last year’s loss of former Republican Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman for the second time to incumbent Democrat Calvin Ball.
Kittleman was hampered by his acceptance of the public campaign financing he once vetoed, reducing his campaign spending and ability to respond to Ball’s negative advertising. Kittleman was also hindered by Trump-endorsed candidates at the top of the ticket that contributed to lower than normal Republican turnout. In 2022, Kittleman got 14,000 votes less than he did against Ball in 2018, while Ball gained only 600 votes over his 2018 tally.
Beth Lawson, the new chair of the Howard County Republican Central Committee, told the crowd of about 80: “We have a lot to do. Please do not be shy, step up and volunteer, please.”
“We want to make sure that people know that Republicans do exist. We are here, we’re not just like some crazy story of bad dreams in the night. We’re going to make sure we are there to help our constituents.”
“We’ve got a lot of good things going on,” Lawson promised.