Maryland governor’s race a bellwether for anti-Democratic mood

Jon Ward Contributor
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Bob Ehrlich was swept out of the Maryland governor’s mansion by a powerful national political tide in 2006. He’s hoping the current climate will form a wave powerful enough to push him back in.

Ehrlich, who in 2002 became the first Republican to win a gubernatorial election in Maryland since Spiro Agnew in 1966, will on Wednesday officially launch his campaign to challenge incumbent Democrat Martin O’Malley.

It will be a grudge match. O’Malley and Ehrlich loathe one another, and the Democrat defeated the incumbent four years ago 52 to 46 percent.

At the time, the national landscape looked quite different than it does now.

Iraq was a pivotal issue, and the country was certain that the U.S. was being dragged into a civil war with no end in sight. Bush’s approval rating was below 40 percent, headed for 30 percent.

Now, Obama’s approval rating is around 50 percent, lower than it was when he took office, but nowhere near Bush country.

Many voters are unhappy with Obama’s health-care law, and are most concerned about the federal deficit and the national debt and their impact on the country’s future security and prosperity.

But Democrats plan to work hard to keep the Maryland race from going national. One of their key talking points is that Ehrlich didn’t lose because of national trends.

In 2006 Ehrlich was the only one of five incumbent Republican governors to lose on election day (Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski lost the Republican primary to Sarah Palin).

Hari Sevugan, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said Ehrlich did not lose because of any “anti-Republican mood.”

“He lost his job because his polices were anti-middle class. Bob Ehrlich consistently put his partisan interests and the special interests ahead of Maryland families and nothing he’s done since then has changed that,” Sevugan said, reviving the charge that Ehrlich was too closely allied with energy companies.

“Bob Ehrlich was the only incumbent governor in the country to lose in 2006 and it was because he was bad at his job,” said Emily DeRose, spokesman for the Democratic Governor’s Association.

But Tom Russell, O’Malley’s campaign manager, acknowledged that “there may have been a trend going on” in 2006 and also admitted that Democrats are up against countervailing political winds this year.

“There’s certainly a national environment that’s difficult for Democrats and incumbents right now. For us to deny that would be just fooling ourselves,” Russell said in a phone interview. “But the reality we’re going to face in Maryland on the ground is that we have a situation that’s considerably better than most states.”

That will be the crux of the debate.

Russell and the O’Malley campaign will point to the state budget’s spending levels, a metric that carries substantial weight with voters in the current environment.

Under Ehrlich, state spending went from $10.2 billion in fiscal 2004, his first budget, to $13.6 billion in fiscal 2007, his final budget. O’Malley has slowed spending, and current projections for the current 2011 fiscal year, which starts in July, is projected to come in at $13.2 billion.

Russell also pointed to a Moody’s study commissioned by Governing Magazine that listed Maryland as one of the five states – along with Virginia, Delaware, Texas and North Dakota – in the “strongest fiscal shape” in the country. The study said increased federal spending was the reason Maryland, Virginia and Delaware were in this group.

The Ehrlich campaign did not respond to several requests for comment. But national Republicans came to their defense, saying that O’Malley has driven wealth out of the state with an overly burdensome tax and regulatory regime.

O’Malley pushed $1.4 billion in tax increases through the legislature during his first year in office, but Maryland still faces a projected $2 billion deficit in the coming fiscal year.

The Wall Street Journal found that a third of Maryland’s millionaires have left the state since O’Malley took office.

Republicans argue that by trying to make up the state’s shortfall through tax increases and spending cuts, O’Malley has created a situation where he is waging a futile chase after declining revenues that will only continue to go down the more taxes go up.

A national Republican involved in governor’s races, who did not want to be quoted by name, cited a Bank of America/Merrill Lynch analysis they said showed that Maryland lost $1 billion of its tax base in 2008.

Republicans will return to one of Ehrlich’s favorite talking points from the 2006 campaign, that he defeated $7.5 billion in tax increases proposed by the Democrat-dominate legislature during his time as governor. There were also 100,000 new private sector jobs created during his four years, Republicans argue.

Ehrlich, the Republican official said, “has a unique ability to appeal to Republicans, Independents and pro-business Democrats. His belief in lower taxes and more accountable government will resonate well with voters who were forced to pay the largest tax increase in Maryland history just three years ago.”

Ehrlich faces an uphill battle in money and in Maryland’s political orientation. He had only $142,000 in January compared to O’Malley’s $5.7 million. And Maryland is an overwhelmingly blue state.

Ehrlich does have state-wide name recognition, and he will do well in the more conservative parts of the state: Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore, some parts of southern Maryland and Baltimore County, where he grew up, along with some adjoining counties.

But he will struggle in the state’s three powerhouse Democratic jurisdictions: Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City. Democrats have won consistently by focusing on the Big Three.

“That’s the strategy a Democrat uses in this state and it’s been pretty successful,” said Donald F. Norris, chair of the public policy department at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Ehrlich is betting that the intensity of anti-tax, anti-Democrat sentiment around the country will motivate fiscal conservatives – even if they are independent or Democrat – to vote for him and to turn out in higher numbers than more liberal Democrats who are guaranteed to vote for O’Malley.

In 2006, voter turnout was low for both candidates.

Norris said that with the economy showing signs of growth, that may give O’Malley the momentum he needs to coast to a win. But the economy, Norris allowed, is the wild card.

“If the economy goes back into the tank, all bets are off,” he said.

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