The Republican Party became a minor party in Howard County in December 2020.
It’s too early to predict what bearing this will have on political but business leaders, party officials and political analysts have taken notice.
Unaffiliated voters now outnumber registered Republicans in Howard County by a slim margin of 451, but the Republican deficit actually represents a stunning implosion when viewed in context of what has happened over the past five years.
In June 2016, Republicans outnumbered unaffiliated voters in the county by 14,037. Twelve months later the difference dropped to 10,654 and the decline has continued unabated.
Republican registration dropped from 58,028 in June 2016 to a current total of 53,626, an 11.8 percent loss, while unaffiliated rolls increased from 46,235 to 53,977 over the same time period, a 16.7 percent gain.
The decline in Howard County is even more notable because overall Republican registration increased in 20 of 24 Maryland jurisdictions during this period.
Steve Wilson, chair of the Howard County Republican Central Committee, said economic pressures are influencing the party’s decline here.
Howard County’s Republicans tend to be concentrated in the rural west where county property costs are skyrocketing.
He said, “I have talked to a lot of Republicans who say, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I’m going to move somewhere else.’ ”
Todd Eberly, a professor of Political Science and Public Policy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said Republican registration numbers are increasing in other Maryland rural areas.
“You’ve got this geographic polarization taking place,” Eberly said.
Republicans tend to favor less government spending and regulation and more incentives for business.
The obvious question is whether the Republican Party’s continued decrease in Howard County will have any effect on its business climate.
“Howard County is not in danger of becoming an unfriendly place for business,” said Leonardo McClarty, president and CEO of the Howard County Chamber. “If anything, we might have to make some adjustments in our strategies for outreach and legislative advocacy.”
Eberly added that the phenomenon of unaffiliated voters becoming the fastest growing sector of the national electorate has also not led to any increase in third-party candidates winning election.
Still, said Wilson, declining Republican registration means historically declining support for Republican candidates and, by extension, the policies they champion, which causes him concern.
Another question is what effect declining Republican registration could have on the party’s ability to field candidates for local elections.
For the past two election cycles the Republican Party did not field a Howard County Council candidate in District 3 and District 4.
Without the moderating influence of conservative candidates, it’s possible that future Democratic candidates could embrace more liberal-leaning policies but moderation remains an important watchword for Republicans.
“I was elected chair in November for the very reason that I’m a moderate Republican,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to make ourselves more attractive … and putting up Trump signs is not going to expand our numbers.”
It’s obvious that the Republican decline in Howard County correlates roughly with the years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
According to Eberly, George W. Bush pulled 45 percent of the 2004 vote in Howard County, Mitt Romney pulled 36 percent in 2012 and Trump garnered 27 percent in 2020.
Eberly said. “I think it’s part of a larger national dynamic we see, which is the suburbs moving away from Republicans and becoming a point of strength for Democrats.”
What that means for Howard County’s Republican officials is that they face an uphill battle wooing unaffiliated voters in a time when the national GOP brand is in turmoil, particularly after the January 6 Capitol riot.
“We’ve got good economic policies, we’re pro-business and that’s what we need to focus on,” Wilson said. “We need to rebrand and be more aware that we are the Howard County Republican Party because if we lose our voice, so do a lot of other people and interests in this county.”
By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | February 2021 Issue