Does Gop Have A Shot?

April 16, 2009|By Richard J. Cross III

With the pivotal 2009 session of the General Assembly now behind him, Gov. Martin O'Malley's focus will turn from legislating to campaigning for re-election. Election Day 2010 is more than 18 months away, and it is too early to tell whether this session left him a stronger or weaker candidate. What is certain, however, is that Mr. O'Malley's failure to repeal the death penalty and his success at passing domestic violence legislation will likely be overshadowed by two larger forces: the circumstances under which he is running, and the quality of the opponent he faces.

Regarding the circumstances, consider three potential scenarios for 2010:

1) The economy is in recovery, and Mr. O'Malley runs for re-election.

2) The economy is still in recession, and Mr. O'Malley faces a strong anti-incumbency tide.

3) Mr. O'Malley has accepted a position with the Obama administration, and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown is the incumbent.

Under the first scenario, a GOP comeback seems unlikely. If the economy has improved, Mr. O'Malley's approval ratings will benefit as much of the anger generated by his tax increases subsides. His campaign will portray him as unafraid to make unpopular but necessary choices. Further, a resurgent economy will benefit his ability to raise money.

However, the second scenario presents opportunities. In 1994, President Bill Clinton's unpopularity and voter fatigue with Gov. William Donald Schaefer allowed Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey to come within inches of victory over Democrat Parris N. Glendening.

But anti-incumbency sentiment itself might not be enough. Three recent Democratic governors won re-election despite diminished popularity. Also, during the last two election cycles, the Democratic Party has demonstrated increased strength in Howard, Charles, Frederick and Baltimore counties - areas Republicans need to win.

For anti-incumbency to benefit Maryland Republicans, another game-changing event - such as a major scandal that rocks the Democratic establishment - would also have to occur before the governor's race could be considered in play.

Though speculative, scenario three is intriguing. If an O'Malley departure initiated a Democratic dust-up - with Comptroller Peter Franchot, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and/or former Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan challenging a Governor Brown - whoever emerged might have difficulty uniting the party in November. However, if Mr. Brown could avoid a divisive primary struggle (perhaps by securing the early, active backing of his Harvard Law School pal, President Obama), he could be formidable.

Of course, favorable circumstances won't matter if Republicans fail to nominate a quality candidate.

Harford County Executive David R. Craig, who has earned a reputation as an honest and capable manager, is largely unknown outside his county. Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold's win was one of the few bright spots for state Republicans in 2006, though he recently sustained some bad publicity. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele likes his current job.

State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a moderate who might appeal to independents and conservative Democrats, has demonstrated good political judgment and has personal resources that would help him finance a statewide race. But indications are he may challenge freshman Democratic Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. of the 1st District instead.

If he wants it, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is the prohibitive favorite for the 2010 nomination. Mr. Ehrlich remains popular but must raise at least $12 million to be competitive. He also needs to mend fences with donors and supporters unhappy with the quality of his 2006 re-election campaign, as well as litmus-test types who judged him insufficiently conservative. Embarking on a state listening tour - as Bill Clinton did after losing the Arkansas governorship in 1980 - would be a good first step.

Maryland Republicans may be better served by rebuilding the party from the ground up rather than betting on an immediate turnaround. For us, victory hinges upon a perfect alignment of factors. We cannot control when that happens. But by doing the right things, we can be prepared when it does.

Richard J. Cross III, a Baltimore resident, is a former press secretary and speechwriter for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His e-mail is rcrossiii@

comcast.net.

WHO'LL RUN IN 2010?

RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele

State Sen. E.J. Pipkin of the Eastern Shore

THE INCUMBENT: Gov. Martin O'Malley

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Harford County's David R. Craig

Anne Arundel Executive John R. Leopold

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