Tight gov’s race brewing in Democratic Maryland

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Four years of budget woes, tax increases in 2007 and the national antiestablishment mood have given Republican Robert Ehrlich a shot at winning his old job back against Gov. Martin O’Malley in one of the most Democratic states in the country.

Ehrlich first must prevail in Tuesday’s primary against a 33-year-old business investor named Brian Murphy, who was mostly unknown until 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin endorsed him last month. O’Malley faces only nominal opposition for the Democratic nomination.

Republicans voting early on Thursday in Annapolis cited Ehrlich’s experience as a reason for backing him.

“He’s been in the governor’s mansion before,” said Harriet Blankfield, a 63-year-old retiree. “Regardless of what the Democrats say, he tried anyway to do a lot of good things for Maryland. It just wasn’t backed up by the Statehouse because they’re primarily Democrats.”

Bill Tongue, who also voted for Ehrlich, said he believes the former governor is in a better position to regain the Maryland governorship for the GOP.

“It’s Murphy’s right to challenge him,” Tongue said. “Personally, I don’t think that’s the best choice right now. I think there’s enough going on in the state, and then Bobby’s got a really good chance.”

Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 among registered voters in Maryland and GOP primary voters often consider electability and mainstream appeal when picking a candidate.

This year, the GOP is upbeat about its chances in races for governor; there are 37 contests, 26 for open seats. The slow economic recovery and high jobless rate have created a difficult political atmosphere for Democrats, and Republicans are determined to move into governor’s mansions.

High on the GOP list are Iowa and Maryland, with grudge rematches.

In 2002, Ehrlich became the first Republican to win the governorship in Maryland since Spiro Agnew 36 years earlier. He beat a familiar Democratic name — Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Ehrlich boasted about ending what had long been a Democratic monopoly in the statehouse. He pursued a strong pro-business course, vetoing legislation to raise the state minimum wage and require large corporations to spend at least 8 percent of payroll on health care or pay the difference into the state Medicaid fund. The General Assembly overrode both vetoes.

Four years later, he was out, losing to O’Malley, at the time Baltimore mayor, 53 percent to 46 percent. Since then, Ehrlich has worked as a consultant to attract business to a Baltimore law firm, and he had a weekly radio show with his wife, Kendel, until he filed his candidacy in early July.

Ehrlich has been looking beyond Murphy to a matchup with his Democratic nemesis, hammering the incumbent for successfully pushing a variety tax increases in the November 2007 special session. Ehrlich has argued that they have hurt small businesses and hampered Maryland’s efforts to bounce back from the recession.

“We have focused on defeating Martin O’Malley and ending Martin O’Malley’s reign in Maryland,” Ehrlich said Thursday before casting his ballot.

But O’Malley contends the tough decisions have enabled the state to make record investments in education, and the governor is quick to point out that Maryland schools have been named the top public school system in the country by the trade publication Education Week for two years in a row. O’Malley also emphasizes that Maryland has maintained its triple-A bond rating — one of only eight states to get the sign of fiscal confidence from financial rating agencies.

O’Malley, whose tenure has been marked by the need for repeated budget cuts during the recession, has described Ehrlich as a spendthrift who raised property taxes, increased tolls and fees and let college tuition rise during far better financial times.

“Only one of the two of us have actually cut and reduced state government, and that’s me,” O’Malley said Thursday on WTOP radio in Washington.

O’Malley also has made light of Ehrlich’s pledge to cut a 1 percent sales tax increase approved in a special legislative session to balance the state’s books. Ehrlich has yet to explain how he would address Maryland’s $1.5 billion deficit in the next fiscal year while reducing the tax at the same time.

Murphy, meanwhile, is criticizing Ehrlich on some of the same issues the former governor is attacking the Democratic incumbent — raising taxes while failing to scale back spending. Murphy is running to the right of the former governor by highlighting his opposition to abortion, pledging to take a strong stand against illegal immigration and vowing not to increase taxes or fees.