Haire today, where tomorrow? New state GOP chief plots party’s future

By Josh Kurtz

As he greets a recent visitor in his comfortable corner law office in downtown Washington, D.C., with memorabilia from his beloved Washington Nationals visible everywhere, Dirk Haire concedes that he has lucked into his surroundings.

Haire, the new chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, is one of the most successful federal construction law and procurement attorneys in town – not a discipline, he notes, that any young lawyer fantasizes about or prepares for. “But you need a job when you graduate from law school,” he explains with a grin, describing how he fell into the gig.

Haire’s ascension to chairman of the state party last fall was perhaps a little less serendipitous, but in some ways no less surprising. A behind-the-scenes player in state Republicans circles for years, mainly as a campaign counsel to many GOP politicians and the state committee, Haire is making his first foray into the statewide spotlight, taking over the party as the critical 2018 election cycle gets under way.

By most accounts, Haire, 49, has served a long and valuable apprenticeship: in national politics, working for, among others, former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats (R) and Jack Kemp, where he shared a cubicle with current U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.); and in the netherworld of the state party.

“He did not need any on the job training,” says Brian Griffiths, editor-in-chief of RedMaryland.com and a former member of the state GOP executive committee.

Haire represents both continuity after the tenure of former GOP Chairwoman Diana Waterman, who served for almost four years, and something new. Waterman presided over the party during one of its most successful election cycles ever – 2014, which saw Gov. Larry Hogan (R) elected and significant Republican gains at the state and local level.

Even with the election of President Trump bringing uncertainty to the national political dynamic, Haire believes he is poised to build on Waterman’s success, calling the transition “a seamless hand-off” and crediting her for taming much of the GOP infighting that had hampered the tenures of her recent predecessors.

“I feel like the party right now is more cohesive than it has been in years,” he says, “which allows us to be coordinated and effective.”

Griffiths says Haire should be able to maintain party unity for the foreseeable future.

“It’s always a balancing act to try to keep the various factions of the party together, more so now after the election of President Trump,” he observes. “But one of the important things about Dirk is that he’s been working with those factions for years already while he was the state party’s lawyer. He’s not somebody who just came in out of the cold and is unfamiliar to the players or to the game.”

Of course, having a popular governor at the top of the ticket helps, Haire readily admits.

“I think he’s popular because he’s focusing on quality of life issues that affect most Marylanders…and he’s operated in a way that resonates with people who aren’t political,” Haire says of Hogan, a neighbor in Anne Arundel County.

He laments that the governor, whom he credits for displaying superior retail politicking skills, “can’t be 24 places at once.”

There is little secret about Haire’s goals for the 2018 election: re-elect Hogan, elect more Republicans to the General Assembly, and build the party’s numbers at the local level.

At the same time, Haire has had to remake the state party infrastructure. Joe Cluster, the longtime state GOP executive director, left at the end of last year – he took his father’s old Baltimore County seat in the House of Delegates. Haire has sifted through about 60 resumes, but does not seem in a hurry to name a replacement. He hired Patrick O’Keefe, a former aide to Baltimore County Del. Christian Miele (R), a rising star in the party, to be the party’s political director.

Haire says he’s waiting to see who winds up leading Hogan’s re-election campaign before staffing up further at the state party – so he can make strategic internal decisions in sync with the governor’s. O’Keefe could wind up running the day-to-day operations of the party.

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Haire for now is putting his own political ambitions on hold. In 2002, he contemplated running for Anne Arundel County Council but did not pull the trigger. He started seeking the 2006 Republican nomination for Anne Arundel county executive, but ran into the political phenomenon known as John Leopold — and withdrew from the race.

Haire won’t rule out running for office in the future, but wants to wait until his four kids – age 16 to one week old – are older. His wife, Jessica Haire, is a lawyer at Fox Rothschild, the same law firm where he works.

“I feel like I’m uniquely situated right now,” he says.

 

GOP Challenges

 

Even with recent GOP gains, the party isn’t where activists would like it to be. Republicans aren’t expected to be competitive in statewide races for comptroller or attorney general next year, and haven’t won a U.S. Senate race in Maryland since 1980. They are shut out of local elected office in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the state’s two largest jurisdictions, and in Baltimore city.

Republicans don’t bother competing at the presidential level in the state. Unless district boundaries are changed – which the courts or a second Hogan term could take care of – the GOP will continue to face a 7-1 deficit in the state’s congressional delegation. They’re fairly deep in the minority in the legislature.

Pressed on his agenda for 2018, Haire will say that electing more Republicans to the state Senate is the top priority beyond Hogan’s re-election. Although Hogan carried nine Senate districts held by Democrats, Haire says the party right now is focusing on seven: the 3rd, in Frederick County, held by Sen. Ron Young; the 8th, in Baltimore County, held by Sen. Kathy Klausmeier; the 12th, in Howard and Baltimore counties, held by Sen. Ed Kasemeyer; the 30th, in Anne Arundel County, held by Sen. John Astle, who is planning to give up the seat to run for mayor this year; the 32nd, in Anne Arundel County, held by Sen. Ed DeGrange; the 38th, on the Lower Eastern Shore, held by Sen. Jim Mathias; and the 42nd, in Baltimore County, held by Sen. Jim Brochin, who is contemplating running for county executive.

Haire says his task of trying to make gains in the legislature is made easier because he believes that the Republican caucuses – and their leaders in Annapolis – are better organized, more nimble and more grounded than they used to be.

Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R) says he’s “honored” to hear that assessment, but maintains that he and Senate Minority Whip Steve Hershey (R) haven’t talked to Haire extensively since this year’s legislative session started because “we didn’t want to bring politics into the session.” He adds that Haire “is doing a good job and is starting to feel himself out,” and looks forward to strategizing with him when the legislature adjourns.

In Annapolis, there are some magic numbers for the GOP: Democrats hold a 33-14 advantage in the Senate, where it takes 29 votes to override a gubernatorial veto. They have a 91-50 seat edge in the House, where 85 votes are needed to override a veto.

“Re-electing Governor Hogan and electing more senators will fundamentally change the way our state government runs,” Griffiths observes. “…Those two goals, particularly the re-election of Gov. Hogan, means that the Democratic hegemony over Annapolis will and end the political landscape in Annapolis will be changed forever.”

Haire is pleased that there’s room for Republicans to grow their ranks in the legislature. He notes that in Massachusetts, a state as blue as Maryland, there is a popular Republican governor, but almost zero chance for the GOP to add members in the legislature or in the all-Democratic congressional delegation.

Haire realizes, however, that Trump could affect the political calculus – in Maryland and everyplace else. He says he’s going to try not to worry about things he has no control over, and will focus on reaching persuadable voters in Maryland.

He concedes that Hogan will have a tough fight on his hands in 2018.

“A coronation – I do not believe that is a likely outcome,” he says.

 

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