Early this summer, the Montgomery County Republican Party was caught by surprise when 15 candidates unknown to GOP regulars-nearly a quarter of all candidates in the race for the local party's influential central committee-flooded its ballot for the Sept. 9 primary.
Party leaders quickly found a similarity among those hopefuls that has driven them to begin an unprecedented informational campaign in what they claim is a battle for control of the party.
The unknown candidates belong to two Christian churches, the Great Commission Church in Silver Spring and the Damascus Christian Community in Damascus, according to Republican officials and members of the churches.
They are competing against 38 other party members who are running for positions on the Republican Central Committee, which rules internal politics for the party that accounts for 30 percent of the registered voters in the county. Party leaders say they are concerned by the challenge because there are no incumbents vying for 10 of the committee's 19 seats this year.
Republican leaders have derided the unfamiliar candidates as part of a sophisticated attempt to take over the moderate-to-liberal Republican party in the heavily Democratic county. Some have compared the move to successful political maneuvers by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority and to Marion G. (Pat) Robertson's church-backed bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
"If this isn't orchestrated, then this is an incredible coincidence," said Alfred Bullock, the central committee chairman, noting that no more than two members from either church are running in each district and that two seats are open in each district. Four of the church members are also running for six at-large seats.
Representatives of the churches, which they describe as conservative, have said that there is no organized effort to induce church members to run and that there is no concerted effort by the churches to work together on the campaign.
"We as a church are not involved in supporting or endorsing candidates and we are not involved in any campaigns," said John Hopler, a lawyer and the head pastor of the Great Commission Church in Silver Spring. Hopler said he was aware some church members were running in Montgomery but that he "didn't know about all of them."
Most of the candidates from the churches said in interviews that they had not discussed their races with other members and indicated they did not know other church members were running.
Some candidates said they decided to run to strengthen the conservative nature of the party and give it clout. "The party is dead in the sense of being able to generate viable [Republican] candidates," said Michael Vario, an accountant in Rockville. Vario described his Damascus congregation as a "fundamentalist, Christian church... that teaches people from the pulpit that if they don't like the way things are going in the government, they should do something about it."
"The fact is they'd be at the nerve center of the party apparatus....They could drastically change the direction of the party for the last 25 years," said Republican state Sen. Howard A. Denis, a member of the legislature for almost 10 years who is running for reelection.
Local GOP officials say that if the church members are elected, they could sway traditional committee fund-raising decisions, decide who will receive voter registration lists during election years, embrace the national drive for the New Right, provide special aid to other church members seeking office and control appointments to countywide committees.
Most of the church members who are running for the central committee are young professionals in their mid-twenties with no experience in county politics.
Five registered to vote within six weeks of the June 30 filing deadline. None had ever worked in party politics and some, when questioned by party regulars, could not explain the purpose of the central committee, Republican leaders said.
Three of those running for office have unlisted phone numbers. Despite repeated attempts to talk to the other candidates, most did not return phone calls. One candidate, Mark Fisher, a 24-year-old Great Commission member who registered June 24 and then filed his candidacy June 30, said, "I'm not granting any interviews."
Another Great Commission member, Lynn Allen, 40, is a production manager for the church's magazine. He said he is a candidate but "not actively campaigning" because he plans to move away from the area.
Seven of the candidates are members of the Damascus Christian Church, a 10-year-old church with about 150 members. The rest are members of the Great Commission Church, which attracts about 1,000 people during Sunday morning services at Springbrook High School. That church is part of a nationwide organization that has been criticized by some former members for the methods it uses to retain members.
Two former church members who asked not to be identified said the church tries to control members' lives by telling them whom they can marry, where they can live and what school they can attend.
Hopler denies that the church tells members how to lead their personal lives. "What we emphasize is that a person needs to follow his own convictions and conscience," he said. "Ours is a free and open church."
Four members of the Great Commission Church are also running as Democrats in the crowded delegate races in districts 19 and 20, both Democratic strongholds. Young and politically inexperienced, they described themselves in interviews as conservatives who are against abortion and interested in "back to basics" in education.
"I really had no idea that other church members were running," said Gail Walls, an advertising supplement manager who has been a member of Great Commission Church for three years. Walls, 31, switched political parties this spring and moved from one apartment to another in her Georgian Woods complex in Wheaton in order to qualify in District 19, where delegate seats are being vacated by Senate candidates Idamae Garrot and Lucille Maurer.
James Reid, a former salesman, is another church member who recently moved to Wheaton from Bethesda and is one of 13 candidates in that district. In District 20, Great Commission members Mary Dunphy and Jeffrey King have joined a race with 12 other candidates.
Great Commission Church is part of Great Commission Inc., a nonprofit religious organization incorporated in Maryland in 1983. It began in the 1970s as part of a regional evangelical movement that swept across college campuses, and now has 85 churches in the United States and eight in foreign countries, including El Salvador and Honduras.
Great Commission Inc. has offices in Hyattsville and advertises its mission as "a movement of Christians committed to helping to take the gospel to every nation in this generation." It publishes religious magazines and distributes religious videos. A subsidiary, Alpha Capital Corp., recently bought Washington radio station WNTR-AM, a talk-show station, for $755,000.
The religious corporation, which has tax-exempt status, also has ties to a group known as "Americans for Biblical Government." Church leader Hopler, who is the registered legal agent for Great Commission Inc., described Americans for Biblical Government as a lobbying group that is not connected to the church, but said that "there are some [church members] who have joined up."
Allen C. Levey, former state GOP chairman, questioned the close-mouthed attitude of the persons running in the Montgomery primary and said they "were deceiving the public by what they are doing."
"Everyone has a right to run for office but they also have a moral obligation to tell people why they are running and to inform the public as to what they are doing," Levey said. "You don't have 19 members of [two churches] who have not been involved in politics at all and all of a sudden they are running for office and insinuating that they don't know the other person is running when they all go to church together."
The Montgomery Republican leadership has rallied to the race by preparing a brochure of candidates to inform voters which candidates are running based on what issues. Party workers have begun calling registered voters, and elected Republican officials are also phoning supporters to inform them of the move by the church members.
"I agree the party should change and keep up with the times and change to reflect current attitudes," said Bullock. "But it shouldn't change as a result of revolution."