Josh Kurtz: After Ehrlich

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“This just closes a chapter in our life,” Bob Ehrlich said on election night.

But really, his resounding defeat at the hands of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) last week was more like the end of a very long book for the Maryland Republican Party – a book with a very unsatisfactory ending.

Of course, the Ehrlich story, and the state GOP’s, have essentially been one and the same for a few too many years. The star-crossed love affair may have finally run its course.

Now, the dispiriting question for Maryland Republicans is, who puts the party back together again? The task may be even harder than it looks.

Even if Ehrlich’s loss wasn’t all that surprising, given that he was running against a tough and better-funded opponent in a heavily Democratic state, the Maryland GOP’s inability to take advantage of what essentially was the best election cycle on record for national Republicans, was nothing short of disgraceful. Even little victories around the state were offset by unfathomable defeats or mitigating circumstances.

Sure, the GOP picked up six seats in the House of Delegates. But they somehow lost two seats in the state Senate. Sure, they swept all the seats on the Frederick County Commission. But state Sen. Alex Mooney (R), a Frederick County powerhouse, was bounced from office. Sure, Republicans picked up a seat on the Baltimore County Council. But Ehrlich barely held service in Baltimore County – a jurisdiction he was supposed to win big.

And sure, state Sen. Andy Harris (R) ousted U.S. Rep. Frank Kratovil (D) in their rematch from 2008. But Democrats in Annapolis can be expected to create new Congressional boundaries that are as painful for Harris as possible; Kratovil may be back in two years.

How did this sorry situation happen?

Ehrlich bears part of the blame. In all the years he was the golden boy of the Maryland GOP, he did very little for the party itself, beyond showing up at fundraisers. He caught lightning in a bottle in 2002, beating an inept Kathleen Kennedy Townsend campaign, and thought his popularity could transfer to others – and that he could make history repeat itself eight years later.

But that’s a dangerous assumption when the Maryland Republican Party essentially doesn’t exist. The Democrats have the money, infrastructure and institutional support to withstand almost anything – a bad political environment, a bad candidate, an attractive opponent.

The state GOP, by contrast, has a few millionaire funders and a couple of business leaders who are forever screaming about the dangers of taxes and regulation. The party has even managed to keep social conservative groups, which can at least provide some ground troops, at arm’s length. It isn’t anybody’s idea of a fair fight.

Whoever takes over the apparatus of the state Republican Party – and the term apparatus has to be used advisedly – is going to have to be committed to building the party block by block, precinct by precinct. No more golden boys like Ehrlich. No more hardliners with a chip on their shoulder, like Ellen Sauerbrey.

Think small. Don’t focus on the 2014 gubernatorial election at all. Focus instead on the next six House seats Republicans can win. Focus on taking back those two seats in the Senate, and on two others. Focus on jurisdictions where you can make inroads – and keep an eye on where you’ll need to play defense. Focus on solidifying the support of old allies and on cultivating new ones.

So who is equipped to lead the Republicans in Maryland?

Ehrlich and has wife Kendel will have a say – and they’ve earned that right. But as a political force, they are spent – talk of Kendel Ehrlich someday becoming a candidate notwithstanding. Maryland Republicans looking to pick up the pieces would be wise to stay as far away from the Ehrlich crowd as possible.

Mary and John Kane also deserve a say. She was Ehrlich’s running mate in this campaign. He is a former state GOP chairman who briefly put together a gubernatorial exploratory committee in the 2002 cycle. They are rich, good looking and committed.

But they are awfully close to the Ehrlichs. And Mary Kane did nothing to help her party’s cause – or her own – when, on election night, she lamented that Ehrlich’s defeat meant that a Republican probably won’t be elected governor for another 40 years. She may be right – but you don’t say that publicly.

Maryland has two Republican county executives at the moment, John Leopold of Anne Arundel and David Craig of Harford. Leopold has the ambition to run statewide – after all, he ran for governor of Hawaii in the 1970’s – but despite his big win last week the sexual harassment allegations against him probably disqualify him politically.

Craig, 61, is a very competent leader with some added perspective from his years in Annapolis. But it’s hard to say he’d have statewide appeal.

Mooney is smart and talented, with a national network of conservative supporters. But he always seemed more interested in picking fights and making points than getting things done. And now, out of office, he’s lost his platform. He’s only 39 – it wouldn’t be surprising to see him plot his political comeback before long. But whether that’s a service to the party remains to be seen.

As it is, in Western Maryland, a newer, slightly younger (age 38) political star has been born: state Sen.-elect Chris Shank (R), who probably now stands at the head of the line of would-be successors to U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R), whenever the 84-year-old Congressman decides to step aside. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into statewide leadership – and Bartlett’s eventual retirement will set off an internecine battle that will do very little for party building.

Two runners-up in races this year, Brian Murphy, who sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination, and Charles Lollar, who challenged U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D), impressed party activists and deserve a place at the table.

What about Harris, the new Congressman? He doesn’t have the bedside manner, so to speak, to build the party. Besides, despite his 14-point victory, he may be fighting for his political life in 2012, if Maryland Democrats have any say over it.

And how about Michael Steele, the prodigal son made good – despite a thousand bumps in the road? Steele is weighing whether to seek another term as chairman of the Republican National Committee. A lot of national GOP grown-ups are hoping he doesn’t. But the Republicans’ big wins across the country last Tuesday serve as a balm for a lot of the pain that Steele and his operation caused the GOP throughout the cycle. Sarah Palin is said to favor another term for Steele. Whatever Steele’s fate, his influence in Maryland will be minimal.

So things look bleak for rudderless Maryland Republicans – even they would concede it. But politics, even in such a Democratic stronghold, are cyclical – and situational.

For 2014, five Democrats, with big egos and sizeable political war chests, are at the starting gate, thinking about running for governor. They could wind up spending a lot of time and effort and money working to beat each other up. And when that happens, Democrats will have a very short time to come together after the primary – a possible opportunity for the Republican gubernatorial nominee. Gov. David Brinkley, anyone?

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Tomorrow Never Knows

To Be Frank (Part 2)

The More Things Change....

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.