“We can – and will – shock the pundits by winning some elections in November,” Montgomery County Republican Chairman Michael Higgs declared in early summer via the local party’s Web site. At the same time, Higgs, an attorney who assumed the county GOP chairmanship late last year, was not sanguine. “I am not going to lie to you. We face some long odds come November,” he wrote.
With a week until the start of early voting in the Nov. 4 election, odds remain long local Republicans will break a losing streak dating back more than a decade — notwithstanding a national tide in their favor, and a Maryland gubernatorial race that is competitive despite the state’s overwhelming Democratic registration edge.
Asked recently where his hopes lie for an upset in local contests, Higgs quickly responded, “I think our best chances are in Districts 14, 15, and 16.” In those jurisdictions, a trio of first-time Republican candidates – Ernest “Ed” Edmundson in Potomac-based District 15 and Rose Li in Bethesda-based District 16, both nominees for state delegate, and state Senate candidate Frank Howard, running in District 14 in eastern Montgomery County — are indeed mounting active campaigns that appear both adequately funded and potentially competitive.
If Edmundson, Howard and Li fall short, they nevertheless may help provide a template for future victories by a local GOP that last managed to elect a candidate to county or state legislative office in 2002 – and for whom demographic hurdles seem to grow rather than shrink.
Over the past decade, the Democratic registration advantage countywide has jumped from 2-1 to 3-1, accompanied by the county’s shift to majority-minority status. The growth of the federal government has leveled off during that period. But the federal bureaucracy still provides direct or indirect employment to a large number of county residents, even as the national Republican “brand” has been increasingly intertwined with the tea party’s anti-government mantra.
A perusal of next month’s ballot highlights the challenges Higgs faces — not only over the next few weeks, but in coming years.
Of 46 county and state legislative offices up for election, the Republicans have fielded candidates in just 27 of these. Among the latter group, nearly half have filed affidavits with the state Board of Election saying they do not intend to raise or spend more than $1,000, indicating little more than token bids for office. By comparison, Li – a former National Institutes of Health official who runs her own consulting firm — had raised more than $30,000 in contributions by mid-August. She hopes to raise and spend a total of $50,000 to $60,000.
The secret of her relative success in fundraising? “Maybe it’s that I do it?” Li – who holds both an MBA and a Ph.D. — replied with a chuckle, alluding to those who had simply filed affidavits forgoing active fundraising. To date, both Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan and former Gov. Robert Ehrlich have appeared at fundraisers on her behalf.
On the campaign trail, Li has borrowed a page from Hogan’s playbook. She emphasizes a desire to “make Maryland more business friendly and lower tax burdens” — while seeking to distance herself from GOP orthodoxy on social issues to reach out to a Democratic-dominated electorate.
It has come at some cost among her party’s base. “I have encountered a lot of conservative Republicans who have said I am not conservative enough, and they’re not going to vote for me. They would rather not vote,” Li said. She calls the state’s current abortion laws “reasonable” and said she would have voted for the 2012 law legalizing same-sex marriage.
For his part, Howard – even as he boasted of casting his first presidential vote for Ronald Reagan, and characterizing his opponent, Democratic Sen. Karen Montgomery, as “far left” – pointed to his environmental credentials. “You just don’t think of a tree hugger when you think of a Republican,” he joked, pointing to his service post as board president of Gaithersburg’s Second Chance Wildlife Center. A partner in a business consulting firm, he has put $10,000 in personal funds into the campaign, hoping to ultimately raise and spend about $30,000.
Howard described himself as a “social libertarian,” explaining, “That’s my way of trying to steer around a lot of the social issues that get people on all sides…frothing at the mouth, and they can’t hear what you’re saying because they’re so angry about this and that.” He backs current abortion rights laws as well as same sex marriage, saying he has “gotten in a lot of hot water” with Republican and unaffiliated voters over the latter position.
Edmundson, meanwhile, labeled himself an environmentalist and was the only Republican candidate in the state to seek and receive the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland.
After earning a substantial amount of money during the telecommunications/Internet boom of the late 1990s, Edmundson purchased a “fair trade” firm he hopes will benefit workers in Nepal. “I know it sounds crazy, but we can end poverty by teaching women how to sew with a sewing machines and getting companies like Walmart, Kohl’s and Target to start buying from socially responsible vendors such as myself, rather than sweatshops,” he said of the venture –from which he receives no salary. (He plans to put $40,000 of his own money into the campaign; he has so far loaned it $17,500, according to public filings.)
His is hardly the typical profile of a Republican candidate. What makes him a Republican? “People ask me that a lot,” Edmundson acknowledged. “Fundamentally, I believe in the power of the free market economy. To me, the core Republican value is let businesses compete, let businesses innovate…and hire more people, and pay people more.”
Like Howard and Li, he backs cutting the state’s corporate income tax to make Maryland more competitive with neighboring Virginia. Howard also has run ads deriding the so-called “rain tax” – a fee some counties impose to deal with the effects of storm water runoff reaching the Chesapeake Bay watershed. But he declared during an interview, “I hate to say it, but some of my Republican colleagues obsess over this particular tax or that particular tax.”
“I am not one of those stereotypes who want to kick orphans and widows into the snow,” Howard continued. “I believe we have some fantastic programs – like the school system in Maryland and in Montgomery County — that need tax revenue, in fact they need more.”
Do Edmundson, Howard and Li have a shot at pulling it off on Nov. 4?
In Districts 16, despite a recent increase in GOP and unaffiliated voters, the Democratic to Republican voter advantage remains near the countywide average of 3-1. In that district, Li would be the first Republican elected to one of three state delegate slots in more than three decades. (The last one: Connie Morella in 1982, who went on to eight terms in Congress.)
In Districts 14 and 15, the Democratic registration edge is more on the order of 2-1; that advantage virtually disappears if unaffiliated and Republican voters are lumped together. But while unaffiliated voters are considered open to Republican messages on the economy, the unaffiliated category has tended to sit out non-presidential elections.
There is also the frequent Republican complaint of Democrats stacking the deck when districts are redrawn; in District 15, two Republican leaning areas were removed during the last redistricting. Another potential obstacle for Edmundson, seeking one of three delegate slots in that jurisdiction: Also on the District 15 GOP legislative slate is perennial gadfly Robin Ficker, running for state Senate. Ficker, seeking his fourth elective office in the past five years, is widely regarded – at best – as the political equivalent of a double-edged sword.
Finally, the Democrats appear to be doing their best to avoid giving the opposition exposure via debates or joint forums. Despite having knocked on nearly 14,000 doors with the help of a team of volunteers, Edmundson conceded: “I’m invisible to most voters. Anything [the Democrats] can do to keep my name awareness low is a win for them.”
Li, campaigning on a slogan of “Put Montgomery County First,” contended the county delegation’s inability to bring in more state aid from Annapolis is linked to the current partisan monopoly. She has picked up on the frequent riposte of Democratic challengers in this year’s primary – that the county receives less than 20 cents back on every dollar it sends to the state.
The current delegation “doesn’t have credible political cover to say [to Democratic leaders in Annapolis] ‘Hey, if we don’t vote for our county, we could lose our seat’,” Li contended. “Nobody believes that — because all the current delegation is Democratic.”
She continued: “I feel like it would help the whole county to have even one Republican. It would give our entire Democratic delegation something to go to their leadership with. Otherwise, nothing changes.”