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Republicans scramble for candidates in Baltimore County

Maryland Republican State Sen. Chris West. Credit: John Lee

Despite predictions that 2022 could be a big year for the GOP, well-known Baltimore County Republicans are shying away from the two county-wide seats that will be on the ballot this fall.

And the deadline to file for candidates to run in Maryland is only three weeks away.

The problem for Republicans in the county executive’s race is clear enough. According to incumbent Democrat Johnny Olszewski’s recently filed campaign finance report, he has more than $2 million to spend. Two Republicans have filed so far. One has around $850 in his campaign war chest, the other $3,000. Neither is well known.

“Money’s important,” said Kathleen Smero, the chair of the Baltimore County Republican Party. “But sometimes old fashioned grass roots, knocking doors and politicking are equally important.”

She said another candidate or two may get in the race. Smero is optimistic Republicans can give Olszewski a credible challenge.

“There is time to continue to raise money for our primary winner, once the primary shakes out and we know who we’re dealing with,” Smero said.

When asked who could challenge Olszewski, Republican State Sen. Chris West, who represents the Towson area, suggested former State Senator Jim Brochin, even though he is a Democrat. Olszewski defeated Brochin in the Democratic primary four years ago by 17 votes.

Brochin said he would run only if Republicans agree to bankroll his campaign.

“Unless the county executive wants to agree to spending limits which I would be happy to adhere to, the Republicans would have to show me the money,” Brochin said.

Olszewski angered both Brochin and West because he has not kept his campaign promise from four years ago to build two new high schools for Dulaney and Towson.

“Olszewski has made a lot of enemies in the last four years, especially in my part of Baltimore County,” West said. “He would lose a lot of votes in this part of the county that he got four years ago.”

West has decided not to challenge Olszewski. He is running for reelection to his Senate seat instead.

The absence of a well-financed Republican candidate for county executive could mean a repeat of 2014. Republicans put up an unknown. He garnered 44% of the vote but still lost to Democratic incumbent Kevin Kamentez.

Jason Garber, the first vice chair of the Baltimore County Democratic State Central Committee, said presumably Republicans thought Kamenentz was a strong candidate as the incumbent, “so I imagine the same thinking may be present here.”

Some county Republicans say that was a missed opportunity.

2014 turned out to be a good year for Republicans. They captured the U.S. Senate, and Republican Larry Hogan won the Maryland governor’s race.

This could be another tough year for Democrats across the board with the ongoing pandemic and inflation. Still, Community College of Baltimore County political science professor John Dedie said it will be hard to beat the Democratic incumbent.

“Baltimore County is demographically changing to more of a Democratic county,” Dedie said. “For a lot of Republicans, they may say ‘we can run but we’re not going to win this seat.’”

So far, no Republican has filed to run in Baltimore County’s state’s attorney’s race. One reason is that the incumbent Democrat, Scott Shellenberger, is also admired by Republican leaders, like Sen. West.

“I’ve told my fellow Republicans, if he’s the Democratic nominee he’s going to be on my ticket,” West said. “I’m going to have a bipartisan ticket and Scott Shellenberger is going to be front and center on my ticket.”

But first Shellenberger has to win the Democratic primary. He is being challenged by Robbie Leonard who is a more progressive candidate. The nightmare scenario for the GOP is that Leonard knocks off Shellenberger in the primary and there is no Republican candidate to challenge him in the general election.

Roger Hartley, the dean of the college of public affairs at the University of Baltimore, points to a University of North Carolina study of state’s attorneys races that finds incumbents can lose up to 50% of the time.

Hartley said, “What if by some chance the challenger wins, then all of a sudden, there might be some Republicans that would say, ‘wow I wish I had filed.”

According to campaign finance reports filed earlier this month, Leonard has nearly $43,000 to spend. Shellenberger has just over $30,000. Shellenberger has not had a competitive primary since he was first elected in 2006.

Smero, the head of the county GOP, said the party will find a candidate for the state’s attorney’s race by the February 22 filing deadline.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2