We’ve Come A Long Way

We’ve said it countless times over the course of the last few years. But I think it bears a little bit of repeating, often since we have usually only spoken about it and not written about it.

If you had told us on July 11, 2007 that we would be where we are today, we would have said that you had seriously unrealistic expectations.

On that day a rag-tag group of conservative bloggers was first brought together by Red State stalwart Streiff to form what amounted to an aggregator of conservatives in Maryland. The blog was first christened “Maryland Politics” for a few days before taking on the name of its URL: Red Maryland.

In those days, Red Maryland itself was less the central focus for most writers. Virtually all of us who started, myself, Greg, Mark Newgent and others, had our own blogs where we were doing on our thing. We cross-posted all of our Maryland stories on Red Maryland, always with a link back to our own blogs in order to maximize attention. It wasn’t until late 2010 that we decided to focus our efforts strictly on Red Maryland and stop cross-posting on our own sites.

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The Maryland blogosphere back in the late 2000’s was a wild-west sort of place, but rarely did it have staying power. Many blogs came and went over the years, many of whom we feuded with over the years. The left has found itself incapable of having any staying power with online blogs (speaking of opinion, not left-leaning journalism). In fact the only left-leaning blogger that has had any staying power over the years is Adam Pagnucco, though both Eric Luedtke and David Moon were able to translate their online writing into political careers. The right has had a bit more staying power. Michael Swartz continued to write about Maryland politics extensively until his recent move to Delaware. Joe Albero continues to have his Salisbury News site, though it no longer seems to have a great deal of local coverage and relevance and instead seems more about sharing memes and plagiarizing the work of others. But beyond that, the playing field is bare.

Really at Red Maryland, we are the last of our breed.

When we started in 2007, the Maryland Republican Party was in the dumps. Bob Ehrlich had just been defeated for re-election. We had lost seats in the General Assembly. Jim Pelura had recently been elected state party chairman as the voice of the activists, but he turned into a disaster. Most Republican news was focused on infighting in the Maryland GOP. Don’t get me wrong; we covered it and that was one of our first breaks where we received coverage in the Baltimore Sun for our efforts. But the Maryland Republican Party was not a happy place.

It was at this time that our mission at Red Maryland really came into focus. We were going to cover Maryland politics. We were going to keep a watchful eye on the state governments. We were going to call out Democrats. And we were going to advocate for conservative policies such as low taxes, small government, gun rights, and liberty. We did not care how many Republicans got angry with us; we were going to advocate for conservative principles, tell the truth, and share our honest opinions.

At the time, nobody was doing that. And we were hailed as advocates and heroes of the conservative grassroots. At times  we were often referred to as the “communications wing” of the Maryland GOP despite not having any formal ties to the party based on our bandwidth, influence, and lack of communications effort from the actual state party.

My how times have changed. But I’ll get back to that.

Our first real show of force was when we helped Michael Hough take out liberal Republican Charles Jenkins in the 2010 Republican Primary. That, more than any other race, showed what Red Maryland really stood for and how we will push our principles and use our platform to advocate for conservative candidates. That, more than anything else, is the most important thing we have done here.

2011 was the turning point that changed everything.

First, in 2011 was when we started podcasting. Growing from one three-man weekly podcast on Thursday nights, we grew into a podcast juggernaut. We were the first real “Podcast Network” with, at one point, new podcasts seven days a week. We were years ahead of our time, as it turned out.

But in 2011 we also had a frequent guest on those podcasts. A businessman who was tired of Martin O’Malley’s tax and spend ways and new that we could do better. That we could indeed…..Change Maryland.

That businessman was Larry Hogan. And he is the two-term Republican governor of Maryland; a sentence that was unfathomable in 2014, much less in 2007 when we started this enterprise. Then candidate-Hogan opened up his operation, let us in, showed us how the sausage got made. We worked with his team to spread the word, and we received a platform to promote what we were doing as well. It was an effective team with mutual interests.

We started doing occasional candidate interviews and endorsements back in 2011, when we gave a recently announced U.S. Senate candidate nobody had heard of named Dan Bongino his first radio interview. We also endorsed Bongino in his 2012 campaign, which may have significantly contributed to his narrow primary victory. Over the course of our history, 75% of our endorsed candidates won their primaries. It reaffirmed the fact that we did have a pulse on what conservatives were thinking.

The real peak of the entire operation was when we signed on with The Baltimore Sun. For several months, we blogged on the Sun but also wrote a weekly column that appeared on Fridays. That, bluntly, was the most influential work we ever did. We put the Democrats on blast on a weekly basis. And it all ended as quickly as it started, a toxic combination of Democrats putting pressure on a Sun opinion editor who couldn’t take the heat and a now-deceased unemployed, out-of-work “conservative” alcoholic who fabricated stories out of whole cloth. It was fun while it lasted, and it was the most meaningful work we have done.

If only we could have published the column we could have written after the 2014 election…

(The secondary peak: when Mike Miller demonized us on the floor of the State Senate)

My personal highlight of our years, however, was the Red Maryland Leadership Conference. I’ve explained this before, but the entire genesis of the Conference was my attendance at CPAC 2019 down at National Harbor. I saw so many Marylanders attending the conference that I had never seen before and known for a fact that had never attended a Maryland Republican event or knew much about what was going locally. We had previously had such conferences in Maryland with the Maryland Citizen Action Network Turning the Tides conferences, but that conference had drifted off at it took a hard right national focus. I vowed that we could do a conference and that we could make it Maryland focused. As we’ve said before; I was unsure if we were going to be able to sell a single ticket, much less sell over 100 of them our first year and then sell it out with close to 200 tickets the 2nd year. It was damn hard work putting that conference together, basically with just Greg and I. We had a lot of help making it happen, for sure. But it was worthwhile and rewarding work and something I intend to continue in the future.

Over the years, we’ve been what we say we’ve been. Yes, we have had feuds over the years: with Charles Lollar’s campaign team in 2014, with Pat McDonough, with John Grasso (which brought us one of the most surreal shows of all), with “libertarian” “journalists” who spend their team mainly as bootlickers for Democrats, with LARPers who think they’re intellectually savvy, the Maryland Campaign for Liberty and their continual fundraising and collection of emails without actually doing trying to affect change and a host of others. We’ve broken real news like when I got the scoop on Chelsea Manning running for U.S. Senate, a scoop that got us worldwide press.

Sometimes we made the news, like a wild-idea to Save the Maryland state flag that attracted 50,000 signatures in a week that attracted a ton, and I mean a ton of media attention.

But our principles have never changed and if that angered people, so be it. We didn’t care then. We still don’t care now.

I mentioned earlier that there was a time when we were hailed as advocates and heroes of the conservative grassroots. Boy, has that changed over the years.

We now live in a world where we can’t go a few days time without somebody on Facebook or Twitter calling us a RINO. Why is that? We were called anti-gun for noting that the Hogan Administration was able to relax restrictions for gun owners. We were called “fake news” by one gun advocate for pointing out that holding a protest two days before an election instead of knocking doors for Republican candidates was useless. We had an entire gang of gun advocates come to an appearance to harangue us because I had the temerity to point out that their protesting was useless when they don’t actually go out and try to elect pro-gun candidates.

And that’s just on the gun issue. There are countless other examples of this, usually related to having said something positive about Governor Larry Hogan. The facts are what they are: Larry Hogan is the most conservative governor of our lifetime. End of story. No tax increases. Minimal increases in the state budget. Reduction in red tape and bureaucratic oversight. Are there places to quibble with his record? Of course, and we have.

So what is the true source of this animus? I think it’s because we’ve reached a point where people don’t know what conservatism is anymore. People don’t know what constitutional governance is. You would be surprised with how many people email us, comment on our Facebook page, or speak to us in person and ask “Why can’t Hogan just do [fill in the blank]?” without even stopping to realize that no Governor has the authority to do what they are suggesting. Most can’t read the political tea leaves or understand enough about the political realities in the General Assembly to do the math, not understanding that no piece of legislation is going to pass without 71 Delegates and 24 Senators voting for it first. They often complain about the Republican Party not doing enough to elect Republican candidates to enact conservative policies, but then are AWOL when it comes to making phone calls, door-knocking, or volunteering for candidates.

The nationalization of politics is also part of the problem. It’s a growing and terrible trend that we have seen, and it’s getting worse every year. For most people, if they don’t see it on Fox News or they don’t read it on Breitbart or they don’t see it on Facebook, it didn’t happen. People remain zoned in on Congress and Washington and national politics and whatever the epic news story of the days is that they are completely clueless when it comes to state and local politics. As we wrote in our FAQ:

Despite nearly 13 years of effort on Red Marylands part so much of conservative media these days is focused on national politics and “owning the libs” as opposed to cogent thought and discussion of campaigns and issues. Combine that with voters and consumers of media on social media devoting 98% of their attention to President Trump and his decisions and ignoring important issues at the state level, it felt like we were in a vicious cycle where nobody cared about things that mattered.

And it’s still that way. People react to things at the state level, on our Facebook page, with a national lens. Which completely lacks nuance and context. As Greg noted in his fantastic magnum opus, in order to continue to prosper we would have had to change the entire character of what Red Maryland is in order to grow and prosper. That was not something that either of us was comfortable in doing. State and local politics have always been and, frankly, remains our passion. It’s where people can do the most good and have the most change in the political process. But people long stopped caring about things that matter so they can panic about things that don’t.

And yes, the rise of Donald Trump has been an epic disaster for conservatism. Anybody who has read my work or has known that I have been Never Trump since day one. I remain so to this day. I said I would give him a chance and I did. And he has been found wanting; he is who we thought he was. In my piece the day after the election, I wrote:

It will be incumbent upon conservatives to stay the course and hold him accountable for what he does and how he governs.

And that’s where the conservative movement has failed. Almost nobody in the conservative movement has the guts to call out the President when he is wrong. Almost everything to do with that has to do with elected conservatives who make a calculation to stay the course and hope for the best. These are good conservatives and loyal Republicans who are willing to ride it out for a better day. You would be surprised how many Republican elected officials, activists, and Central Committee members have told me in confidence how much they dislike Trump and wish that we had a legitimate conservative leading the party. But they say nothing for professional reasons: they don’t want the mob to come after them.

On the other side you get conservatives who can’t get enough Trump. The irony isn’t lost on me that some of the same people who ten years ago were calling conservative Republicans RINOs for nothing being conservative enough are some of Trump’s biggest fanboys. Some of the people who six years ago kept trying to get Larry Hogan to answer “What is the purpose of government” would never dare ask the question of Trump as they are festooned in MAGA gear all the time. Conservatives who thought that the presidency of Barack Obama was the beginning of unlimited tyranny are the same conservatives who cheer every abuse of power and expansion of government that comes out of this administration.  Just as I predicted it might. Too many conservatives, good conservatives, sold out the principles they used to have to adopt Trump as their ideological lodestar. It’s sad to see people, very smart people with a tremendous grasp of economic principles, the Constitution, and conservative philosophy, put that aside and adopt Trump’s bananas economic policy and strongman ethos in order to make a buck hosting a podcast and getting play on Fox News.

Trump has also brought in new Republicans. That’s usually a good thing. However, these Republicans who just changed their party a few years ago have the temerity to try and determine who is and who is not a good Republican. Kimberly Klacik was a Democrat as recently as five years ago is all over social media declaring who is and who is not a RINO, a situation that is bad enough before you compound it with her complete lack of knowledge about constitutional governance. In past days, people like Kim Klacik would be laughed off the stage. Now, they are made into social media stars solely on the basis of being a Trump supporter and her message being amplified by Trump.

Trumpism has poisoned the GOP, and poisoned conservatism.

We can’t even run our state party these days without the influence of Trump and control being exerted in Washington. The recent debacle regarding the National Committewoman’s race where Trump endorsed the Never Trump incumbent Nicolee Ambrose was a completely surreal saga that overshadowed the actual issues in the race. Combine that with the slate of official Trump delegates running at the recent Spring Maryland GOP Virtual Convention being changed at the last second over internal squabbling, all directed from Washington, and you see how Trumpism corrodes everything it touches. Local decisions are being made from Washington in ways that are completely useless, offputting, and sowing new fissures in the state party and amplifying others.

And that doesn’t even being to address the proliferation of conspiracy theorists throughout the GOP. While there is no doubt that conservatism has always had its share of fringe conspiracists going all the way back to the Bircher days, but since we’ve started we’ve seen an explosion in the near “mainstream” acceptance of conspiracies. Gone are the days of the black helicopters, audit the fed, and “they’re turning the freakin’ the frogs gay” and that’s been replaced by Pizzagate and QAnon and “the Deep State.” It’s been a long time since the Red Maryland twitter account had a day where we didn’t have somebody on Twitter sharing some sort of nonsense with us with a #DeepState or #WWG1WGA tag (here’s an example) that has nothing to do with us or with Maryland and are surprised when we ignore them and don’t take them seriously. Now I know when I see somebody tweet or talk about the Deep State or WWG1WGA that they are somebody who belives whatever people tell them and cannot be bothered to think critically for themselves but for reasons that are baffling, people take that crap seriously and for reasons that are as unlikely as they are confounding President Trump uses his Twitter platform to amplify that and all sorts of other conspiratorial and often racist nonsense. The conspiracies have always been there but now they have a champion leading the GOP which creates all sorts of complications for candidates up and down the ballot.

Those conspiracies, of course, are amplified by a right-wing media complex who are often more than happy to oblige the whims and passions of their audience if it gives them profile, keeps them on TV, gains followers for their social media, downloads to their blogs, or helps them sell whatever new trinket or supplement they’re offering today. I’m not talking about those on CNN, or MSNBC, or other places who are often dubbed “Conservative, Inc.” (something that we have comically been called more than a few times from those people who still didn’t realize that this was not a job nor was profit our motivation). I’m talking about the names you see on Fox News or OAN, hear on Limbaugh, or read about in The Federalist, Breitbart, and other similar news organizations. Often times the pundits themselves have remained the same over the years. But their views have changed. They have gone from stalwart small-government conservatives willing to take on Republicans who didn’t act like conservatives (much as we have) to just shoveling whatever the Trump Campaign is pushing today.

Look no further than the opinion some of these pundits had about Mitch McConnell in 2015 vis-a-vis their opinion about McConnell today as he has helped push the Trump Agenda. Or their opinion about shovel-ready projects in the Obama Administration vis-a-vis the numerous attempted iterations we have seen for infrastructure week. Mitch McConnell didn’t change. The viability of massive make-work federal projects didn’t change. But the audience went from wanting to hear about actual small-government principles in the Tea Party days to wanting to hear glorious praise of their new dear leader.

These pundits probably would say they didn’t sell out, they bought in. But they cashed the checks from those media companies don’t they? They have become the very Conservative, Inc. they belittled “establishment” Republicans for becoming. It’s no wonder some candidates make such an effort to get a piece of that pie for themselves.

The only reason I have stayed a Republican is with the anticipation that Trumpism will collapse upon itself and we will be able to build a new GOP in its place, one that goes back to where we were six years ago. This is particularly true in Maryland, where six years ago we won all across Maryland. And won bigly we did. Compare and contrast that with what happened in 2018, where anti-Trump sentiment wiped out a lot of Republicans who should not have been wiped out. It wasn’t a difference in organization; both 2014 and 2018 saw strong organization, and in 2018 we even had next-level digital capabilities that exceeded the Democrats. But it was the national wave that wiped out good people. And taxpayers have suffered for that decision.

I don’t pretend to know what’s going to happen this November at the ballot box. Every time I think Trump has it in the bag or Trump has given it away, the situation changes. But a Republican Party with Trumpism as its ideology is a death sentence for the GOP, but more importantly a death sentence for conservatism. There is no conservative party right now. Trump has brought the GOP agenda closer to the Democrats than ever before. Sure, there are tax cuts and military spending. But there are record deficits. There are massive increases in the size of government. There’s a weak-kneed foreign policy that screws over our allies and rewards our enemies.

Try growing a party with that record. Especially here in Maryland. What so many people fail to realize is that Maryland is not a conservative state, certainly not in the way many Republican activists think. Too many times we have people commenting that the General Assembly should do X, Y, or Z, or we get comments in our polls that say “the GOP needs to nominate a Trump supporter for Governor!” without stopping to consider President Trump’s massive unpopularity in the state, particularly among the independent voters you need to persuade in order to win statewide in Maryland. It has always taken a coalition of Republicans, independents, and moderate Democrats for a Republican to win in Maryland, a formula Larry Hogan (much to the chagrin of his Republican detractors) mastered.

But Maryland is not a left-wing state either. It is not nearly as progressive as Maryland Democrats like to think it is and often they have seen just how far they have overreached, the 2018 nomination of Ben Jealous being the most obvious example. Maryland, as we have oft-pointed out, has a middle temperament. The most successful governors have been ones who have been ones who didn’t run to either extreme, Larry Hogan and William Donald Schaefer being the two most prominent examples of that. With smart, strategic thinking and a balance between conservative principles and political practicality, Republicans can continue to win and conservatives can continue to prosper.

For that to happen, a few things have to happen.

Governor Hogan needs to be able to enact fair General Assembly redistricting after this year’s census, preferably with single-member districts. There is no better way to fundamentally reform state politics and governance as well as restore that middle temperament than to end the Democrats immoral gerrymandering that has disenfranchised conservatives, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and women from having greater representation in Annapolis.

Republicans will also need to nominate a credible and competitive candidate for Governor in 2022. We have had a strong run of good candidates since 1994, however during the last quarter-century only three people (Ellen Sauerbrey, Bob Ehrlich, and Larry Hogan) have been nominated for Governor. None of those names are going to be on the ballot next year, so what’s next? We know that several credible candidates, including Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford, Secretary of Commerce Kelly Schulz, and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, have considered running (which is why it was not a coincidence that all have spoken at a Red Maryland Leadership Conference). All three have a proven record of conservative leadership. Republican voters will need to resist the urge to do something rash.

And finally, and a lot of you are not going to like this, in order to win the gubernatorial election in 2022 Donald Trump has to lose in 2020. Based on the President’s sheer unpopularity in Maryland and what we saw happen to Republican candidates in the 2018 elections, it will be impossible for a Republican to win the Governor’s race with Trump in the White House. It’s not my personal opinion on the President and his policies; it’s math.

I’ve already spent way too long talking about all of this, but I do what to close on a call to action for you, my fellow conservative. Here is some advice going forward:

  1. Embrace Your Principles: Conservatism is about the protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s standing against big government. It’s standing against tax hikes. It’s standing against abortion and assisted suicide. Don’t let some politicians sway your principles. Remember who you are.
  2. Do The Work: The conservative movement has enough people who talk a good game, show up for a photo-op, and don’t do any of the work while spending their time backbiting, gossiping, and lying. Some of them are even popular activists here in Maryland. Don’t be one of those people: do the work necessary to help elect people without making it all about yourself.
  3. Do Right: Be honest. Be direct. Keep your word. That’s not just a rule for politics, that’s a rule for life.
  4. Embrace Change: Your principles, your work ethic, and your integrity should never change. But the way you do business should. We have seen tons of innovation over our tenure here. Red Maryland was an innovation. Neil Parrott’s MDPetitons was an innovation. Everything we have seen with digital organizing is an innovation. And innovation is not just something for the state party; the Maryland Young Republicans in the last year have been reinventing themselves with tremendous success. To be cliche: be the change you want to see in the world.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. If you have read anything if we have done, thank you. If you’ve ever agreed with me, thank you. If you’ve ever been mad at me (as many of your invariably are right now) thank you. I’m not leaving the playing field; I will still be writing about state politics from time to time at The Duckpin. I’ll still be writing my column at The Capital as long as they will let me.  My writing may pop up in a few other places from time to time. I still plan on producing, in some manner in this wild pandemic world, a revamped Leadership Conference in early 2021. I’ll be producing podcasts in some way shape or form at The Duckpin, though what the looks like and when that starts remains up in the air. You’ll still see me at Maryland Republican Party conventions and events from time-to-time. Despite the end of this particular passion project, my political focus will forever remain on state and local politics because that’s where the action is and that’s where I can do the most good.

The state party has come a long way since we started this. Red Maryland came a long way from the time we first decided to be aggregate a few conservatives in one place. I’m proud of what we have done. I’m proud of what this ragtag group of activists, outsiders, and candidates did in helping elect Republicans, keeping Democrats in check, and changing the conversation of Maryland politics. My only hope as we leave the playing field is that somebody steps up. We were the voice of Maryland’s conservatives for 13 years; I look forward to seeing if somebody can pick up the torch and keep it aflame. The movement and our state may well depend on it.

But there’s the personal side of this too.  All of the friendships and people I’ve met over the years made it ever worthwhile. Knowing that we influenced elections, influenced the direction of the party, and influenced state policy is incredible when you consider the opinion people had of blogs and bloggers when we started this. Were there headaches? Of course. There are people with juvenile senses of humor and axes to grind in any field. When you write things publicly and say things publicly, you’re going to make people mad. People are going to take things out of context. People are going to take things out of context. To write is to be misunderstood. In politics, you get the added benefit of people starting rumors they know to be true directed at your personal life or write long confounding screeds accusing you of blackmail (yes, both of those happened). I assume that doesn’t happen in the world of accountants.

At the end of the day was it worth it? After 13 years spent on a passion project where you didn’t turn make a single dollar off of it, was it worth it? Was all of the time spent planning the conferences, traveling to meetings across the state, dragging equipment places, was it all worth it? The answer is an unequivocal yes. I would do it all over again (some might say that I already am starting The Duckpin). Are there ways we could have done it better? Always, and those are lessons I will take with me in the new venture. But I would absolutely do it again. When you do things in the public sphere, particularly at a time where you are stepping back from them, you have to ask yourself: did I make a difference? Did I make a positive change? And we did. All of us did. Together.

And with that, I start to finally bring this 5,000 word epic to a close. Don’t give up hope on Maryland. For most of us, it is our home, where we were born and raised, and where many of us will die. Despite its faults, it is a wonderful state, true to its name as “America in Miniature.” Maryland is worth fighting for. Do not give up on it.

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