ANNAPOLIS — House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga doesn’t see blue when she thinks about Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 2-to-1.
To her, it’s purple because of the 2014 election of Gov. Larry Hogan, the state’s first Republican governor since 2007. And she hopes it becomes even more purple in her bid to become Maryland’s first Republican U.S. senator since 1987.
“The media continues to report that we’re a solid blue state,” Ms. Szeliga said, noting Mr. Hogan’s popularity throughout the Old Line State. “There are three branches of government and one-third of them is red.”
A state delegate since 2011, Ms. Szeliga doesn’t consider herself a typical politician. And she said Americans are tired of career lawmakers — such as her Senate rival, Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is in his 14th year in Congress after having served 12 years in the Maryland House and Senate.
“What is the definition of insanity?” she asked with a laugh. “Electing the same people who got us into this mess and expecting different results.”
She accused Mr. Van Hollen of not understanding the gravity of the Islamic State and terrorists liked to Iran. She recalled a woman she met last autumn, around the time of the mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, and said that mother’s concern for her two children inspired, in part, her Senate run.
“I think there’s a lot of moms who just aren’t feeling protected,” said Ms. Szeliga, herself a 54-year-old mother and grandmother. “And that’s one of the prime purposes of the federal government, is the security of our nation.”
In an interview Wednesday at a Starbucks near the Maryland State House, the Republican whip said she will support her party’s nominee, Donald Trump, in November’s presidential election.
As for her Senate bid, she has support from her former boss — Rep. Andy Harris, the only Maryland Republican in Congress. She served as his chief of staff for six years and then helped him win his congressional seat in 2010. He, in turn, campaigned for her in last week’s primary.
“The way Kathy interacts with people and the kind of representative she is, I think she’s cut from the Larry Hogan mold,” Mr. Harris said. “She wouldn’t strike you as the average politician. She’s just like the person who lives next door, the person down the block, the person with whom your kids go to school.”
Ms. Szeliga said she plans to address national issues with the skills she has acquired as a high-ranking Republican legislator, adding that working with Democratic colleagues for the last five years taught her the value of bipartisanship.
“You have to work across the aisle,” she said with the commanding calm of a former teacher. “Americans have had enough of the gridlock in Washington. [Voters] want you to be principled at your core and yet be able to work together to get some things done.”
She pointed to gun control as an example of stalemate in the federal government. A member of the National Rifle Association, she accused Democrats of disregarding the Second Amendment. But she said background checks are not working to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, adding that there is a need to focus on mental health issues and prohibit those with mental problems from possessing firearms.
“People are unwilling to enforce the laws on the books,” she said. “Instead, they make more laws. Why can’t we get this right?”
Baltimore County Council member David Marks, whose district Ms. Szeliga represents, praised her consistently conservative views and ability to cross party lines.
“She’s extremely personable,” Mr. Marks, a Republican, said of his friend of 15 years. “She holds firm to her principles but she’s not disagreeable.”
He said Maryland voters have appreciated Ms. Szeliga’s efforts to lower taxes and her approach on business.
Ms. Szeliga said she will continue advocating for small businesses in Washington. As co-founder of Summit Inc., a construction contracting firm, she sympathizes with those who struggle to run a company under today’s regulatory standards. Operating her business is more difficult now than when she built it with her husband 30 years ago. Even setting up payrolls and defining employee benefits has become complicated, she said.
“We’ve done what a lot of people our age that own their own businesses do — when the economy’s tough and the government makes it really hard for you to make a living,” she said. “We scaled our business back.”
Ms. Szeliga said she will partner with other champions of small business in Congress — such as Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican — to lift regulations and help small companies flourish.
“Part of the American dream is ‘I can own my own business, I can control my destiny,’” she said with fervor. “‘I can have the opportunity to work for myself.’”
Mr. Marks noted the difficulties for Republicans in statewide races in Maryland, whose last GOP senator was Charles Mathias — who was succeeded in 1987 by Barbara A. Mikulski, the retiring Democratic stalwart whom Ms. Szeliga aspires to replace.
“It’s always an uphill fight for a Republican,” he said. “But she has the qualities to make this a surprise in November.”
The question remains: What color Maryland will be in the fall — blue or purple?