"I'm not sure where they've gone, but their numbers are down," said Mark Boyer, chairman of the county's Republican Central Committee.
Some say the change reflects a statewide - and a nationwide - trend. But in a traditionally Democratic county in a traditionally Democratic state, the shift is a little more dramatic.
"Certainly, it's one we'd like to change," Democratic Central Committee Chairman Rick Hemphill said. "We're doing some things to change the tide."
With a new election year looming, the Democrats have a lot of ground to make up. The Maryland primary is March 2.
Democratic and Republican leaders alike suggested several reasons for the shift. Both cited the conservative tendencies in Western Maryland and a national shift to the right.
"Clinton had a negative connotation with a lot of people," Hemphill said. "I think a lot of it, too, is that people are much less willing to vote with a group."
Additionally, Hemphill said the state party had "tended to reinforce issues that are more representative of the urban areas of the state. It really isn't reflective of the Democratic Party in Western Maryland."
"I think Washington County for the most part is a conservative area," said Mildred E. "Mickey" Myers, a vice chairman of the Republican Central Committee. "Some may register Democratic but are conservative in their thinking. I know a good many Democrats that do vote for Republicans."
While the Republicans have made a strong effort to increase Republican voter registration, she said, much of the shift can be attributed to "the grass roots of people who want to see our beliefs and our standards come forth."
"The overall trend in conservative rural areas has been toward the Republican Party," Boyer said. "While Washington County has been historically Democratic, it's always been conservative. Washington County was probably the last holdout for the Democrats in Western Maryland."
He suggested that moderate voters became disillusioned with the Democratic Party.
"There is now no room for conservatives in the Democratic Party," he said. He cited two local examples, former Del. Paul Muldowney and former state senator and circuit judge John P. Corderman, who in recent years switched their registrations from the Democratic to the Republican Party.
"They had been lifelong Democrats," he said.
Further evidence of local voters' conservative bent came in the 2000 presidential election, Boyer said. Bush carried Hagerstown's legislative District 2C, which has a Democratic majority.
That election "was a very pure example of conservative vs. liberal," he said.
The "swing" vote was not made up of Republicans, but of Democrats and unaffiliated voters, he said.
Hemphill has another theory. Because the number of independent voters has swollen at a faster rate than Republicans - there are more than 9,000 independents in the county now - Hemphill believes the numbers really are showing that "people are much less willing to vote with a group." He characterized the county's unaffiliated voters as "9,000 Democrats that don't want to say so."
Following a trend
Washington County's political shifts reflect "something of a statewide trend," said Herbert Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md.
"Republican registration in the past 20 years has gone up about 300,000" in Maryland, he said. While Democratic numbers have remained static, the number of independent voters throughout the state is on the rise.
New growth in suburban subdivisions "has been more on the Republican side," he said. It's an "old suburbs" vs. "new suburbs" polarization, he said.
"Urban areas go Democratic," Smith said, but "the Republicans' message resonates more with affluent suburban areas. There's an animosity toward cities in rural areas that spills over into politics."
The most obvious result of the changing tide is the fact Maryland has its first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew left the statehouse in the late 1960s to become Richard Nixon's vice president.