- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Richard Weldon does not feel like he fits in with any political party in Maryland.
A former Republican state delegate, Weldon split from the party over what he called the Republicans’ hypocrisy in supporting gambling bills under former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, but opposing them under Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.
But Weldon said even as a Republican, he had crossed party lines to vote for Democrats at the local level, and as an independent, his voting behavior hasn’t changed.
Neither party is likely to lure him back from his nonaffiliated status, he said.
“There’s a large swath of the Republican Party that says you have to be to the right of Attila the Hun and a large swath of the Democratic Party that says you have to be to the left of Karl Marx, and it creates less room for guys like me,” said Weldon, a Brunswick resident.
The high-profile campaign of U.S. Senate candidate Rob Sobhani, a former Republican running as an independent, has drawn increased attention to a growing phenomenon — the number of registered voters who belong to no political party.
In Maryland, the Democratic and Republican parties continue to grow their numbers, but the fastest-expanding segment of the electorate is unaffiliated political independents.
In three jurisdictions in the state, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore, political independents now outnumber Republicans.
Statewide, 1,983,812 residents are registered as Democrats, 940,419 are Republicans, and 584,066 are listed as unaffiliated with any political party, according to the August Voter Registration Activity Report at the Maryland State Board of Elections, the most recent available.
A year earlier, there were 44,500 fewer Democrats, 25,000 fewer Republicans, and about 45,600 fewer nonaffiliated voters, according to the August 2011 report.
But analysts say many of those independent voters are not political centrists as might be expected.
“There’s a difference between independent voters and swing voters,” said Todd E. Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who teaches a course on state politics.
Eberly has studied election results at the state level and found independents overall tend to vote Republican in Maryland more often than some voters who identify themselves as Republicans.
“By and large, when Democrats run statewide, [they] tend to receive a share of votes equal to their voter registration numbers. Republicans equal a vote share plus independents,” Eberly said. That picture includes voters who cross over to the other party’s candidate and some independents who vote for the Democratic candidate.
While the Democratic Party is still dominant at the state level, it is down from a peak of 75 percent of all registered voters decades ago to about 56 percent today, Eberly said.
“They’ve left the Democratic Party, but they’re not going to the Republican Party; they’re remaining independent,” Eberly said of the former Democratic voters. “They’re not going to call themselves Republicans, but they’re not willing to remain Democrats.”
Michael Towle, chairman of the political science department at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, agreed.
“For one reason or another, they don’t want to identify themselves with a party,” he said. “They may lean strongly in one direction or another but vote very consistently in that direction.”
By comparison, moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans are more likely to cross over to the other party’s candidates than are independent voters, Towle said.
“There’s a certain cachet with calling yourself an independent these days,” he said.
Adam Hoffman, director of the Institute for Public Affairs and Government at Salisbury University, said Republicans must woo independents to capture a statewide seat, like Robert Ehrlich did in his successful gubernatorial bid.
“When you’re dealing with a small base relative to the Democratic base, you have to have the independents to win,” Hoffman said.
Although their numbers are growing, it is hard to make a case that independents are grasping political power because none hold statewide offices.
The late entry of Sobhani into the U.S. Senate race — he announced last month — has created the highest-profile race yet by an independent candidate, bolstered by a largely self-financed $4.8 million campaign. In two prior tries, Sobhani failed to get out of the Republican primary for Senate.
In a September poll, incumbent Sen. Ben. Cardin (D) led with 50 percent of likely voters, followed by Republican Dan Bongino with 22 percent and Sobhani with 21 percent.
The poll by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies of Annapolis had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Cardin leads among independents, with 39 percent supporting his re-election, but was closely trailed among independents by Sobhani at 38 percent. Independents made up the bulk of Sobhani’s support, followed by Republicans at 22.4 percent.
“People are tired of political parties,” said Sobhani’s campaign spokesman Sam Patten. Sobhani quit the Republican Party in 2000.
In Montgomery County, nonaffiliated voters passed registered Republicans for the first time in December 2010. In the latest report, there were 333,118 Democrats, 123,404 Republicans and 133,523 nonaffiliated voters.
Augustus Alzona, who served on the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee from 1998 to 2002 and again from 2006 to 2010, said he was not surprised.
From his observations, voter registration outreach efforts by the Montgomery County GOP initially helped attract new voters, including minorities in the increasingly diverse county, Alzona said.
But then, money raised was sent to help the top of the campaign tickets and less was spent on local retail political efforts, he said.
That was a major reason why the number of nonaffiliated voters eventually passed the number of registered Republicans, he said.
Republican numbers have continued to decline in Montgomery County, while the number of Democrats and nonaffiliated voters grows, he said.
Alzona, who remains a Republican, expressed frustration that as a socially conservative Catholic, he believes too many Republicans are supporting same-sex marriage. This could lead other social conservatives to leave the party and either become independents or find another party to join, he said.
“One of my pet peeves was the focus was solely on fundraising and not on the grass-roots fundamentals of registering voters,” Alzona said.