Image: Maryland delegate Don Murphy
John Brecher  /  msnbc.com
Don Murphy is the head of the Maryland delegation at the Republican convention.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/2/2008 3:05:18 PM ET 2008-09-02T19:05:18

Republicans have become an endangered species in the Northeast.

Fifteen years ago there were 40 House Republicans from the Northeastern states stretching from Maine to Virginia, but today there are only 25.

Five years ago, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire all had Republican governors. Today all five states have Democratic governors.

This November, Republican senators John Sununu in New Hampshire and Susan Collins in Maine are in jeopardy of being pulled under by an Obama-led Democratic surge.

And for the fourth time in five presidential elections, it’s quite possible the Republican presidential ticket this November won’t carry any states north of Virginia or east of Lake Erie.

The Republican Party’s feeble pulse in the Northeast makes it all the more difficult for Sen. John McCain to collect the 270 electoral votes he needs to win the White House.

Northeast has 114 electoral votes
If he can’t win any of the 114 electoral votes from the Northeast, McCain must win the upper Mississippi Valley states and the Mountain West.

Last year, many Northeastern Republicans backed former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bid, thinking that if he were the GOP nominee, he’d have re-drawn the Electoral College map by putting New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in play.

With Giuliani not on the ticket, delegates to the Republican convention from the Northeastern states offered a variety of survival strategies for their party.

Corey Stottlemyer, a delegate from Hagerstown, Md., said his party needed to adopt Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s emphasis on wooing the “Sam’s Club Republicans,” the budget-minded, fiscally conservative workers with modest incomes. “Especially in these tough economic times those are the people we need to reach out to on taxes and on the cost of energy. Those are the issues Joe Six-Pack is dealing with every day,” said Stottlemyer.

“Most of the folks in Maryland tend to be more moderate,” said Don Murphy, who is the chairman of the Maryland delegation at the convention.

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“I won’t say Republicans in Maryland are moderate. If I were a moderate Republican in Maryland, I’d be a Democrat,” Murphy said.

And, in fact, one thing hurting Republicans in parts of the Northeast is the ideological schism between the conservatives and the centrists.

In a bitter House primary last February, Republicans in Maryland’s First Congressional District chose a conservative challenger, Dr. Andrew Harris, booting out centrist Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, who had represented the district for nearly 20 years.

A McCain Republican supports a Democrat
This week Gilchrest revealed that he is abandoning his party’s candidate, Harris, to cross over and endorse Democrat Frank M. Kratovil, Jr.

“I’m disappointed,” said Murphy to the news of Gilchrest’s defection.

He noted sadly that Gilchrest was one of McCain’s original supporters in his 2000 bid for the GOP nomination and was a McCain delegate to the 2000 convention.

“The larger problem in both parties is the candidates at the extreme end of the spectrum are the ones who are winning the primaries,” Murphy said, explaining that this is partly due to congressional redistricting which results in more ideologically pure districts and fewer truly bipartisan and competitive ones. Gilchrest ended up being too centrist for his district.

Murphy said, “You have to learn to work with the opposite party. One of the reasons I support McCain  — even if you aren’t really sure about McCain — is we want two-party government. You don’t want one party in control of everything. Divided government is a good thing. People in the Northeast get that by electing Republican governors” in the predominantly Democratic states of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

In making the case to voters they should elect McCain as a check on a Democratic Congress, Murphy admitted, “I am playing defense, but I’m playing the cards I’ve been dealt.”

“When you are a moderate, as most of the Republicans from the Northeast are, you’re always on the knife edge,” said former Rep. Amory Houghton, who represented an upstate New York district from 1987 to 2005. Houghton is a New York delegate to the convention.

Houghton, former chief executive of Corning, said, “We’ve got two wars. One is with the Democrats and the other is within our own party. We’re trying to reconfigure and reposition the party. Our base in New York is different from the base in Texas. You can’t lose the base, but at the same time, we’re not going to win with only that base.”

Need for 'a larger tent'
Coming up to greet Houghton on the convention floor, Rep. Peter King, who represents a suburban district in Nassau County, New York, said, “I probably have been more conservative than Amo (Houghton) over the years, but we have to reach out, we have to have a much larger tent than we’ve had recently.”

King argued that McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate “could attract large numbers of women who ordinarily wouldn’t be that attracted to the Republican Party — not because of her particular views but because she is really a unique 21st century woman, five kids, governor of state, an athlete, and her husband’s a blue-collar worker.”

But King was chagrined that GOP conservatives had apparently scuttled McCain’s idea of having Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate.

Lieberman will address the convention Tuesday night.

Why not Lieberman?
“He’s a Democrat, he’s pro-choice, we disagree on some issues but he’s a strong national defense Democrat,” King said. “And when people around President Bush started to mention Joe Lieberman’s name, the right wing went crazy. They said they’d rather lose the election with a conservative vice president, than win it with Joe Lieberman. This is madness.”

But one Connecticut delegate, Santa Mendoza, an attorney from New London, Conn., said, “We would have been absolutely devastated as a delegation” if McCain had picked Lieberman “because Joe Lieberman is a liberal Democrat. We know the real Joe Lieberman.”

“As far as Connecticut is concerned, McCain really has to bring home his ideas about energy. We have a very cold state. It costs a lot of money to get heat in Connecticut,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said what most gave her hope was the generational shift personified by Palin and by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who’d also been on McCain’s short list for running mates.

“There’s a real feeling of excitement right now that the party has a future through them.” Mendoza said.

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