A year later: Why Gov. Ehrlich lost

November 07, 2007|By Richard J. Cross III

This month marks the fifth anniversary of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s election as the state's first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew, and today is the first anniversary of his defeat.

For erstwhile Republican activists like me, these anniversaries prompt reflection and regret. Although our incumbent was popular and charismatic, had a creditable record and raised more money than any governor in Maryland history, the dream of Republican relevance was unsustainable.

Maryland's political landscape looks identical to 1987. Six U.S. House members and both U.S. senators are Democrats. A popular Democratic former mayor of Baltimore is governor. Democrats control the four highest state offices and the General Assembly.

These parallels don't imbue me with optimism. Neither does a closer look at the 2006 election. In 16 of 23 jurisdictions, Mr. Ehrlich's support fell below his 2002 performance, while Martin O'Malley outpolled the 2002 Democratic candidate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, in every jurisdiction with one ironic exception: Baltimore. It's enough to make some Republicans want to give up on the dream of a two-party Maryland.

But Republicans must persevere. After all, competition heightens accountability and mitigates arrogance among the majority. Republicans need to move forward in their quest for relevancy, and this requires being clear-eyed as to why Mr. Ehrlich lost.

The overwhelming Democratic advantage in party identification, along with an unfavorable political climate, certainly contributed to the outcome. Nonetheless, other Republican governors running in Democratic states - including Connecticut, Hawaii and Minnesota - survived. That leads me to conclude that Mr. Ehrlich lost for other reasons as well.

First, Mr. Ehrlich's support among Republicans and conservative Democrats softened. Many of my friends who campaigned for Mr. Ehrlich encountered conservatives upset about the "flush tax," stem cell funding and certain judicial appointments. But those running the campaign told us, "Where else are they going to go?" The fact that Republican turnout dipped nearly 5 percent in 2006 compared with 2002 indicates "they" weren't convinced supporting the first GOP governor in decades was worth a trip to the polls.

Second, Mr. Ehrlich's team was out-hustled on the Baltimore Gas and Electric rate increase issue. While administration officials were briefed about the looming increase long before it became public, crisis communication efforts only followed its appearance in the newspaper. Mr. Ehrlich would have benefited from using the 2006 State of the State speech to inform Marylanders about what was coming, and to assign blame where it belonged. Instead, once the story hit the media and the blame game started, his message got lost in a din of dueling press conferences.

Third, the campaign never adequately communicated the administration's accomplishments or agenda, opting instead to over-attack Mr. O'Malley's record on crime and Baltimore's schools. This strategy had one defining flaw: Although people might question Mr. O'Malley's handling of these entrenched, chronic problems, he clearly didn't cause them.

Mr. Ehrlich's communications dollars could have been better spent hammering home the governor's record on jobs, charter schools, the Intercounty Connector, the Chesapeake Bay and other underreported successes. The campaign also missed an opportunity to energize conservatives by initiating a statewide dialogue about taxation in Maryland.

Last, the Ehrlich campaign became preoccupied with exotic strategies. Its massive phone banking operation not only didn't work, but it might have backfired: Some of my friends encountered annoyed voters who had been called nine or 10 times. Mr. Ehrlich also spent a disproportionate amount of time campaigning in African-American churches in Prince George's County and synagogues in Montgomery County. While he reached out to these steadfast Democratic constituencies, he hemorrhaged support in counties he won by big margins in 2002 - and needed to win big again.

Mr. Ehrlich could have waged a perfect campaign and still lost. However, a more focused strategy might have produced a narrower margin than 117,000 votes, enhancing his viability and adding credence to comeback talk.

Unfortunately, the state Republican Party's fate was so tied to Mr. Ehrlich's that his departure relegated it to what it was in 1987: irrelevant, dispirited and bankrupt.

Republicans have no choice but to embrace the lessons of the loss. They need to rebuild the party from scratch, focusing on such fundamentals as candidate recruitment, grass-roots organization and messaging. In other words, they must start over.

Richard J. Cross III, a Baltimore resident, served as Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s congressional press secretary and gubernatorial speechwriter. His e-mail is rcross3rd@yahoo.com.

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