- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Republicans are attracting more voters in this historically Democratic state and attribute much of their success to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

“Every day, we get more and more people wanting to sign up, and we get tangible support, not only with their talent but with their treasure,” said Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman Audra Miller.

Beyond wooing more voters, Mr. Ehrlich’s tenure as Maryland’s first Republican governor in more than three decades has helped the state party nearly doubled its staff and raise almost as much money as Democrats, more than a year before the general election.

The administration’s accomplishments — including turning an inherited $2 billion budget deficit into a $1 billion surplus with no tax increases — also have elevated the profile of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has gone from the first black elected statewide in Maryland to a rising star in the party heading for a run at the U.S. Senate.

Maryland State Board of Elections records show Republicans, in fact, have been attracting registered voters since 1994, increasing their rolls by 25 percent, as of last year. Democratic registration increased about 18 percent during that period.

The Republican party consistently has gained ground in every county except the Democratic strongholds of Prince George’s County and Baltimore city.

In Montgomery and Baltimore counties, jurisdictions considered pivotal in the governor’s race, the number of registered Republicans increased by 5 percent and 16 percent, respectively, from 1994 to 2004. Still, Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland by nearly 2 to 1.

Republican strategists say they have more vulnerable Democrats to target in the upcoming General Assembly races. They would have to gain 14 House seats and five Senate seats to break the Democrats’ veto-proof majority in the legislature.

Mr. Ehrlich’s efforts over the past three years, including policies helping children and the disabled, also have made it more difficult for Democrats to “vilify” Republicans, said Carol L. Hirschburg, a state Republican political consultant.

“There were people who wouldn’t vote for a Republican because they didn’t know what a Republican would be like in office,” she said. “We never had anyone to be the focus of our ideas and the party before the governor was elected.”

However, detractors are critical of some of Mr. Ehrlich’s decisions, particularly his denying medical benefits to some legal immigrants and vetoing a bill allowing illegal aliens to pay in-state tuition at state universities. Recent polls show Mr. Ehrlich’s job approval rating is at 46 percent.

Republicans also have hired some political veterans to craft strategy and raise money in early preparation for the 2006 campaign season, which will include the highly anticipated race between Mr. Ehrlich and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley or Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. Mr. Duncan has yet to officially announce his candidacy.

The party has raised more than $800,000, compared to the Democrats’ roughly $1 million, and the major Republican fundraiser this year — the “Red, White and Blue Dinner” at the Baltimore Hyatt Hotel — is not until Nov. 3. Republicans also got out early to recruit campaign volunteers with their new “Team GOP Maryland” program.

In response, state Democrats have brought on board three new field directors, including veteran organizers from the Democratic presidential campaigns of Sen. John Kerry, of Massachusetts, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. They also have hired a Capitol Hill fundraiser who previously pooled donations for U.S. Rep. Benjamin L Cardin, Maryland Democrat and candidate for U.S. Senate.

“We are taking nothing for granted,” said Maryland Democratic Party Executive Director Josh White. “There is a lot at stake this next election.”

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