Republicans Focus on the Session — and the Future

House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke flanked by his fellow Republicans at an Annapolis news conference Friday. Photo by Josh Kurtz

Maryland Republicans and conservatives, fresh off an election with decidedly mixed results – a robust victory for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., but failure in key legislative and county races – are already looking to the future.

On Saturday, 150 conservative activists and political leaders got together in an Annapolis hotel ballroom to gear up for 2020 and 2022, while a day earlier, the House GOP Caucus announced its formal agenda for this legislative session – the first time House Republicans have had one since Hogan became governor.

It all adds up to Republicans coming to terms with the reality that the Hogan era will not last forever – and that the popular governor’s political and policy agendas aren’t always in sync with those of rank-and-file Republicans.

“I believe Larry Hogan is exactly the kind of Republican who can be elected in Maryland,” observed U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris, the lone Republican in the state’s congressional delegation, at Saturday’s conference, organized by the political website Red Maryland. “I don’t know if he’s the kind of Republican who can be elected nationwide.”

In a state still dominated by Democrats despite Hogan’s back-to-back victories, conservatives know they have to be strategic – and realistic – about the battles they wage.

“We’ve been able to swing above our weight class and achieve really good things for our state,” House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said Saturday.

The Red Maryland conference was equal parts overview of 2018, group therapy session, rally of the troops, spotlight on key issues, and nuts-and-bolts advice on how to organize winning campaigns. It also served as a platform for top party leaders – including potential candidates for high office in 2022. Only Hogan himself did not appear.

Two Republicans considered possible contenders for governor spoke – Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman. Craig Wolf, the GOP nominee for attorney general in 2018, also spoke – and sounded like he might want to run for governor in 2022 as well.

The three provided contrasting views and images.

Noting Hogan’s success in a year when President Trump’s approval rating in Maryland stood at 30 percent, Rutherford told Republicans they’ve got to get out of their comfort zones and campaign in places where they might not expect to do so well – and also need to separate themselves at times from national party dogma. They also need to focus on recruiting a more diverse set of candidates.

“We need to look much more like Maryland with our candidates, and particularly with younger candidates,” he said.

Previewing a top battle of the legislative session, Rutherford conceded that proponents of a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Maryland, “morally speaking…are on solid ground.” But he suggested that no employer is going to want to pay a teenager $15 an hour. And he said that there is also a moral argument against a higher minimum wage – and that it would be more potent in “border regions” of the state, where nearby states have lower minimum wages.

“If you’re not competitive, then you lose people and you lose business,” Rutherford said. “Why would you start a business [in Maryland] if you’re seven miles from Pennsylvania?”

Glassman, a sheep farmer who was active in the college Republicans when President Reagan was first elected and has been in local or state office since 1990, reminded the activists in the room that politics is cyclical.

“I’ve seen a little bit of everything,” he said. “I’ve seen these high tides and these low tides that we’ve seen with every election.”

Glassman advised the crowd to “get back to the basics,” and said his rural upbringing informs his political views.

“I tend to take the old agrarian approach to politics,” he said, describing his focus on running a fiscally sound government, emphasizing education and environmental stewardship, and promoting citizenship.

“I talk about community a lot,” Glassman said. “Farmers were always willing to lend a hand. Be involved in your community. Help a neighbor.”

Wolf, while not quite delivering conservative red meat, was considerably angrier, suggesting that media bias contributed to his loss to Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) in November. He emphasized the importance of candidate fundraising.

“With media hostility and apathy, candidates need the money to reach the voters,” Wolf said. He also suggested that GOP leaders reach out to Hogan’s high-dollar donors early, to make sure they’re engaged early in the effort to recruit and help Republican candidates. Hogan, Wolf said, “had the money to get his message out despite the hostile media.”

Wolf, who left a high-paying trade association job in Washington, D.C., to challenge Frosh, isn’t quite ready to jump back into the political fray — even though he is plainly eager to do so.

“I haven’t made any decisions yet,” he said. “Right now, I’m looking for a job.”

Numerous speakers said the time to start preparing for 2022 is now – and that means everything from candidate recruiting to early engagement with voters and activist groups to fundraising to setting up digital outreach and other campaign fundamentals.

Said Brian Griffiths, Red Maryland’s editor-in-chief: “I’m ready for the election to happen today.”

Four-point agenda

In Annapolis Friday, House Republican leaders unveiled their top four legislative priorities for the current General Assembly session. They are pushing for:

— A one-quarter percent across-the-board cut in the state income tax cut, which they estimated would cost the state treasury about $400 million a year. “We know it’s doable,” said House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County).

— The establishment of a state registry for murderers and repeat violent offenders, similar to the one that exists for sexual offenders. Kipke said the registry would only be compiled with information that’s already public.

— A measure to create a new class of “special police officers,” which would give local school systems the option of stationing a police officer in every school. “We believe this could have a very meaningful impact” for school safety, said Del. Matt Morgan (R-St. Mary’s), who represents Great Mills High School, where three students were killed last year.

— Single-member districts in the House of Delegates, instead of multi-member districts, as the House is currently constituted. Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) called the way legislative lines are currently drawn “blatantly political” and “the dirty little secret of Maryland politics.”

Kipke, whose caucus lost eight seats in November, suggested the House GOP did not release a formal agenda in Hogan’s first term in part out of deference to the new governor.

“When Gov. Hogan was elected, I think most of us were in awe of that moment,” he said, adding that House Republicans were “joyful” at the governor’s reelection and pleased to have “worked hand-in-hand” with him on some key initiatives.

But Kipke said the House GOP’s constituents wanted their delegates to advance their own agenda and “to work together with the majority party to get things done.” He said most of the caucus’ proposals complement Hogan’s list of priorities.

“Thank God we’re not talking about tax increases, because that’s what we got here for eight years under [former Gov. Martin] O’Malley,” Kipke said.

But at the Red Maryland conference, state Senate Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) sounded a note of caution, reminding the assembled activists that the Senate Democratic Caucus has moved to the left since the last election.

“It’s going to be hard for us to be as effective as we have been in the past,” he said.

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