HAVRE de GRACE — Harford County Executive David R. Craig describes himself as a moderate by temperament, but he is staking out positions that seem certain to appeal to the Republican party's hard-core conservative base as he seeks the 2014 nomination for governor.
In recent weeks, Craig has articulated policy stands that put him well to the conservative side of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in his 2002 race for governor — the only gubernatorial election the Maryland GOP has won in four decades. On the environment, social services and other issues, Craig has virtually dared his Republican rivals — Anne Arundel County Del. Ron George and Charles County business executive Charles Lollar — to try to outflank him on the right.
Among other things, Craig wants to scale back Maryland's role in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, give the state's business department a greater voice in environmental and health regulations, and impose limits on how long low-income people can collect food stamps and other benefits — even if it means refusing federal money.
Craig, 64, insists his positions represent the experiences of a lifetime as an educator and public official — not a strategy for winning the June 24 primary in an increasingly conservative party. "It's not like we're trying to move to the right or left. It's being correct," he said.
Political observers say Craig appears to be positioning himself to compete in a primary in which staunch conservatives are the most reliable voters. The challenge facing Craig — or whoever wins the primary — will be to appeal to a much different electorate in the general election. In Maryland, Democrats have a more than 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration over Republicans.
Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University and a Craig supporter, said the numbers pose a dilemma for Republican gubernatorial candidates.
"The fact is, you often have to take positions in primaries that are not going to be positions that win you a general election," Vatz said. "That's the reason why it's very difficult for even an attractive [Republican] candidate to win in Maryland."
John T. Willis, executive in residence at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore, said making a post-primary pivot is more difficult now that recording devices are ubiquitous.
"Everything you say in the primary can be used against you for the general [election]. Everything is captured these days," Willis said. A candidate who tries to swing too far back to the center after a primary risks being labeled a flip-flopper, he added.
George said he's seen a rightward shift by Craig.
"I think he's been looking at the polls and he's taking different positions than what he has in the past," George said. The delegate said he has established a solid conservative record in his two terms in the legislature and sees no need to change his approach.
Lollar said he was not familiar with Craig's recent positions.
State GOP leaders have discussed allowing independents — roughly 17 percent of Maryland's 3.7 million voters — to cast ballots in the Republican primary, but that would require action at the party's convention next month. Such a proposal could face resistance from conservatives because it might favor candidates perceived as more moderate.
Craig has governed Harford since 2005, making him the longest-serving executive in the county's history. In 2010, he was re-elected with almost 80 percent of the vote.
The landslide victory came after Craig compiled a record of fiscal conservatism and tax-cutting combined with a genial, nonconfrontational style. "I'm considered a moderate because of my temperament," Craig said in an interview at his restored, circa-1839 home.
Michael Bennett, the Democratic mayor of Aberdeen, isn't backing Craig for governor but says it's been a pleasure to work with him as county executive.
"For the most part, I've seen that he's been a moderate — a kind of middle-of-the-road guy," said Bennett, who has been mayor for almost six years.
Such descriptions are not necessarily an asset in an increasingly conservative Republican Party.
Richard Cross, a former Ehrlich speechwriter turned blogger on Maryland Republican politics, said he has seen online attacks on Craig from the hard right labeling him a "RINO" — for Republican in Name Only, an epithet sometimes hurled at those who deviate from conservative orthodoxy.
Cross said that while the Harford executive has the image of a moderate, his positions on such issues as food stamps could reassure the conservative base.
"It helps him connect with a constituency that might regard him skeptically," Cross said.
Among the conservatives who stand behind Craig is Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the two-time Republican nominee for governor and favorite of the party's right wing.
"If people think David is a RINO, I think they're very wrong," said Sauerbrey, who served with Craig in the House of Delegates in the early 1990s when she was minority leader.
Craig has been beefing up his conservative credentials as he has waded deeper into the statewide political scene. When the General Assembly passed a law in 2012 requiring some counties to impose fees to finance projects that would reduce runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, Craig's first reaction was to reluctantly comply. Recently, however, he urged the County Council to repeal the fee that conservatives have derided as a "rain tax." He is making repeal of the fee a central issue of his campaign.
That stance is part of his broader view that Maryland should back off from some of its more aggressive anti-pollution efforts. Craig has challenged Maryland's traditional role of leadership among the states in the bay watershed, questioning whether it should get out ahead of Pennsylvania and New York, which contribute to the bay's pollution but have less stake in its condition.
Craig said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should take the lead — but only after the federal government has fixed its own pollution problems and the agency has proved that its rules will be effective. If that means a delay in cleaning up the bay, he said, he sees no urgency.
"Some people would say it's been dirty since the 1830s," he said. "Some people say it's going to be dirty forever."
In a previous interview, Craig had suggested repeal of the 1984 Critical Areas Act, a landmark law limiting development on the land closest to the bay and its tributaries. Last week, he backed off that stance, saying the legislation should be re-examined, not eliminated.
Likewise, Craig dialed back a recent suggestion by an aide that he would give the Department of Business and Economic Development veto authority over regulations proposed by other departments — such as environment, health and labor — if the rules could cost Maryland jobs. Last week, Craig said the business agency would review such rules but would not have a veto.
As Craig has modified stances on a few issues, he's taken a hard-right position on others.
On transportation, he would reserve three of the largest sources of revenue — the gas tax, vehicle registration fees and titling taxes — for spending on roads and bridges, not mass transit. To fund Baltimore-area bus and rail lines, he would require riders to pay 50 percent of the cost of running the system — a proposal that would raise the current base fare of $1.60 to $2.90, according to legislative analysts.
Craig said he would like to see limits on food stamps and other welfare benefits, even when the federal government provides many of the resources.
Todd Eberly, a professor of political science at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, has called Craig a strong Republican candidate. But the rightward turn has made Eberly more skeptical about Craig's chances in a general election.
"I still view him as the strongest statewide candidate for the Republicans, but if he's not careful he will completely undo that advantage," Eberly said.
Sauerbrey, who narrowly lost the gubernatorial election to Democrat Parris N. Glendening in 1994, thinks Craig is positioned right where he needs to be to win in November 2014.
"I think he's offering solutions that the state badly needs," she said, "and the majority of people in this state feel sick and tired of being overtaxed and over-regulated."
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, CT Now