Earlier this month, Maryland voters delivered a hard punch to the gut of right-wing, conservative Republicans. The GOP supported three ballot questions challenging laws passed by the General Assembly. Washington County Republicans took the lead in trying to overturn these laws, knowing, at a minimum, their supporters would back them. Republicans felt these laws were controversial and that overturning them was possible. They felt that not only might these laws be overturned, but to even challenge these laws would send a message to the Democratic majority that referendum could be used as a check on any law deemed worthy of opposition. Things didn’t work out the way the GOP hoped. On each ballot question, the challenge was rejected by Maryland voters. In fact, in some ways, the condition of the statewide GOP is now worse.
Be it the challenge to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, congressional district maps or gay marriage, the challengers’ view of our state was rejected. The laws, in direct opposition to the GOP social and political agenda, were upheld. In some cases, even conservative parts of the state didn’t support the challengers. The voting majority came down on the side of expanded opportunities for children. Voters agreed that by denying homosexual adults the right to marry someone of the same gender, they were being denied equal treatment and expanded freedoms. The congressional redistricting law denied a safe congressional district to the GOP. Now, the GOP must actually start to win more than a handful of local elections.
Over the last few decades, the Republican Party has become dominated by an agenda focused on a host of social issues such as anti-immigration, anti-abortion, no limits on gun ownership and an intolerance of any domestic relationship other than a heterosexual one. Even more recently, the GOP has adopted a mantra of no taxes under any circumstances. Not surprisingly, the party has earned the nickname of “the Party of ‘No’” with such characteristics as “mean,” “angry” and “uncaring.” While the system for collecting signatures for referendum proved to it a great tool, it had an unintended consequence; it affirmed how much the GOP is out of touch with the statewide electorate.
The party has seemed to race to see who can take the most extreme position on this social agenda. This didn’t have to be the case. Now, the danger is that the party, rather than modify its positions, further entrenches itself in these unpopular positions.
With this negative image, a perceived level of intolerance and a habit of losing elections, it is little wonder that statewide Republicans can’t get a second look. To get that second look, the GOP has to be willing to change. The GOP must recognize that in terms of statewide elections, it is viewed as being out of touch with voters. The GOP must find a way to reach beyond its constituency of primarily evangelical Christians and white males.
One group to reach out to is obvious. Newly registering voters are not affiliating with Democrats, either. Unaffiliated voters tend to be young, new residents to the state or legal immigrants. These groups are looking for opportunity and are appalled at the high level of taxes and government intervention that has come to characterize Maryland. But, they are turned off by the GOP’s social agenda. Instead, this group should be attracted to traditional conservative principals including equal rights for all, equal justice and opportunity for all, fiscal responsibility, encouragement of individual initiative and advocacy for government closest to the people. The GOP needs to rebuild itself as a party that promotes these principles, seeks to reduce the size of government and promotes efficient, less intrusive government, especially at the state and federal levels.
Republicans have begun to realize that this is the new normal. National party professionals point out the GOP must broaden its constituent base. After the election, Sean Hannity of Fox News admitted that he has “evolved” on the issue and now supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Former national party chairman Michael Steele posted on his Facebook page, “… understand and appreciate that the country has changed, you (Republicans) got your clock cleaned because you were out of step with where the country is, and now you need to regroup and refocus.”
If Republicans keep doing the same thing over and over the outcome will be the same. We need to “evolve.”
David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident. His email address is email@example.com.