WASHINGTON – Maryland Republicans had eight candidates running for Congress this year. Unfortunately, they were running in four of the state's eight congressional districts.
Long strapped for candidates to fill out the ballot, Maryland's Republican Party now finds itself in the unusual position of taking sides in a crowded primary in an effort to protect its two incumbent congressmen and best target sitting Democrats.
"We always look for the best candidate," said Eric Sutton, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party (search).
But the policy of backing select candidates in the primary while ignoring others -- or even exerting "subtle pressure" against them -- does not sit well with some.
"If this is the way the current leadership of the party operates, I think they really need to reconsider," said Republican state Delegate Dave Boschert. "I'm not bitter about it. I just think it's poor politics."
Boschert dropped a bid for the 3rd District seat this week because of family concerns. That left the primary field open for Anne Arundel Circuit Clerk Robert Duckworth, who was recruited by the party months after Boschert got in the race.
In other primary races, 1st District Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (search) is being challenged by state Sen. Richard Colburn, and 6th District Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (search) faces a challenge by fellow Republican Scott Rolle, the Frederick County state's attorney.
In the 5th District race, former Berwyn Heights Mayor Bradley Jewitt will face off against 2002 GOP nominee Joseph Crawford for the right to run against Rep. Steny Hoyer (search), the House Minority Whip. Sutton said the party did not recruit either candidate but believes that Jewitt is the better candidate.
"We haven't officially endorsed Brad, but I can tell you that we believe he's the best candidate to win," Sutton said, noting Jewitt's experience as mayor. "We believe he has the best chance to unseat Steny Hoyer."
The party also is backing Gilchrest and Bartlett -- a traditional move, said Sutton.
"Usually what we do is if the incumbent's done a good job, we will support him," he said, noting the Republican National Committee (search) has the same unofficial policy.
But the unsanctioned candidates are not backing down.
"Obviously, every candidate wants as much support as he or she can get. But party support is no guarantee of victory," said Carol Hirschburg, spokeswoman for Rolle.
Hirschburg said the party has not pressured Rolle against running, but a spokesman for Colburn said that campaign has received "subtle ... pressure from some folks."
"Incumbents always try to protect each other," said Peter Foster, Colburn's campaign manager. "It's nothing serious, and it's certainly nothing we can't deal with and move on."
WBAL political analyst Frank A. DeFilippo said parties often protect sitting politicians.
"I think generally both parties try to discourage knocking off incumbents," he said. "Over the years, the Republican Party [in Maryland] has been so outnumbered that they've discouraged it."
But the tradition upset former state Delegate Don Murphy, who thinks the party should "support the best person and not necessarily the incumbent."
Murphy considered introducing a resolution at this weekend's Republican convention to require two-thirds of the executive committee to agree to primary election endorsements, but he decided against it to avoid the appearance of targeting Bartlett and Gilchrest.
"The timing ... looks like this is a hit at the incumbents, and that's not what this is supposed to be," Murphy said, adding that he will probably introduce the proposal next spring.
DeFilippo said the surge in the number of Republican candidates can likely be attributed to the election of Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
"What you've got going now is for the first time in years, we've got a Republican governor . . . and they're [state Republican leaders] going around seeking candidates for as many races as they can."