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Payback Time?
Comments () | Published September 27, 2010

It shouldn’t even be close. In an ordinary year, the Democratic governor of Maryland—especially one who started the campaign season with a nearly $6-million cash advantage over his challenger—would have to have been caught with an intern or accepting bribes from a tobacco lobbyist to be vulnerable. The overwhelmingly blue state has only added to its ranks of registered Democrats in the past four years, and Republican statewide elected officials are as rare as an osprey on the Chesapeake Bay in winter.

“A good Democratic candidate running a good Democratic campaign in Maryland will beat a good Republican running a good campaign every time,” says Donald Norris, who chairs the public-policy department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Ehrlich’s win in 2002, political observers say, resulted from an unusual alignment of stars, including momentum for Republicans after 9/11 and a weak Democratic opponent in Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, incumbent Parris Glendening’s lieutenant governor. Ehrlich was an affable former Maryland delegate who’d spent the previous eight years on Capitol Hill but never lost the clunky, nasal accent that evokes his humble beginnings in Arbutus. He became the state’s first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew was elected in 1966 and only the sixth ever.

Four years later, with an electorate disenchanted with George W. Bush and the Iraq War—and a much sharper candidate in Baltimore mayor O’Malley—the Democrats were back.

But instead of coasting to a second term, O’Malley has a race on his hands. No ordinary time, the economic crisis of the last few years has cost many incumbents their jobs, and an anxious electorate facing home foreclosures, stagnant wages, and job losses has lashed out at Democrats.

“The trends are crystal clear,” says Silver Spring developer and columnist Blair Lee, a conservative Democrat whose father was lieutenant governor to Marvin Mandel as well as acting governor for a year. “The question is are they applicable to a state like Maryland,” where a substantial federal work force is somewhat insulated from economic hardships.

Since the spring, Ehrlich vs. O’Malley, round two, has been largely about jobs, with the two candidates running around in parallel universes, the incumbent trumpeting business success stories, the challenger casting a light on shuttered doors and pink slips.

Much of their focus has been on the Washington suburbs, which both candidates believe are crucial to this election. O’Malley needs a good turnout in Prince George’s, where Democrats flocked to the polls for him in 2006, delivering more than 78 percent of the county’s vote. Ehrlich needs to tap into the rich pocket of Republicans in Montgomery, second only to Baltimore County’s in number, as well as independents for an upset. Ehrlich kicked off his campaign in Rockville, opened a headquarters there in July, and tapped Mary Kane, a Potomac Republican who’d been his secretary of state, as his running mate. At a Silver Spring event to introduce Kane, nearly two dozen members of the Howard County Republican Club carpooled in to fill out the crowd.

O’Malley stuck with his lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown, a former delegate from Prince George’s County and an Iraq War veteran. And O’Malley, a Bethesda native, takes every opportunity to tout his Montgomery County bona fides. As a child, he says, he walked to Gifford’s, Peoples drugstore, Grand Union, the duckpin bowling alley: “I describe for those born post-1963 all the things that used to be in Bethesda just to prove my credentials.”

Montgomery County has also given rise to the latest wild card in the election—Chevy Chase business investor Brian Murphy, 33, whose campaign for governor as a more conservative alternative to Ehrlich received little attention until he was endorsed by Sarah Palin, whom he’d never met or talked to.

Ehrlich, who has the backing of most of the Republican establishment in the state, says he’s not worried about the challenge to his right. He says he didn’t seek Palin’s support, although many listeners to his radio show were fans of the former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate.

“She’s a very effective spokeswoman for a part of the base within the Republican Party,” says Ehrlich. “Her appeal cross-party is very much in question.”

Kendel Ehrlich has had a rematch in her sights from the start. “You’re not done,” she told her husband two days after he was bounced from the governor’s office. Following the Democratic sweep in 2008—when Ehrlich was pretty certain that he was, in fact, done—his wife went to the mall and bought everything she could find with inspirational slogans from Ehrlich’s heroes such as Winston Churchill, Vince Lombardi, and Teddy Roosevelt. “Never, never, never give up.” “Believe.” She scattered them around the house, even in the shower.

By winter, the reception Ehrlich was getting at speaking engagements, along with polling data and GOP statewide wins in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New Jersey, gave him enough confidence to take the leap. He’d been telling friends he missed the action, and that was obvious every time he went to lunch at McCormick & Schmick’s in Annapolis Mall and started working the room.

O’Malley says he knows he has a rough road ahead. “I think it will be a tough race,” he says in an interview in his state-house office. “These are the toughest times our country’s gone through since the Great Depression, and every family is rightly focused on their family’s needs.”

But he says his leadership, which included such bitter pills as tax increases and budget cuts, put the state in a better economic position than most: “As far as the mirror test goes—the ability to look yourself in the mirror and know you’ve made the best decisions you could make given the adversity before us, I feel very good about that.”

Although incumbents are having uphill battles around the country, he believes that the Maryland race is unique because it’s between two people who have both served as governor. “Both of us have served as incumbents, both of us have made choices, both of us have records,” he says, “and so people have a pretty stark contrast.”

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