Tough Choice Awaits Ehrlich As Time Slips Away

November 10, 2009|By Thomas F. Schaller

On Saturday afternoon, I attended the 12th annual Annapolis Tug-of-War. Every autumn, locals string a high-tension rope from the downtown Annapolis dock over to Eastport. Residents from each side then battle for dominance as onlookers keep warm with hearty cheers and frosty beers.

Watching from the Eastport side, my thoughts turned to the internal political tug-of-war former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must have been grappling with all weekend: To run or not to run?

After last Tuesday's election results in Virginia and (especially) New Jersey, the knotty rope of indecision became more taut for Mr. Ehrlich, who seven years ago became the first Republican to win the governorship in 36 years, before losing his re-election bid to Democrat Martin O'Malley in 2006.

Which factors might tug the former governor toward trying to regain his Annapolis foothold, and which are likely to convince him to cheer a fellow Republican nominee from the sidelines?

For starters, the political environment could be quite favorable. The 2010 midterm cycle is shaping up well for Republicans and poorly for incumbents from coast to coast at every level of government. Mr. Ehrlich won in 2002, another cycle with a strong Republican tailwind. Next year's could be even stronger.

The Arbutus native is also known statewide, so he needn't spend time or money introducing himself to voters as he had to in 2002 as the congressman from the 2nd District. Nor will he have trouble gaining the attention of the Republican National Committee, whose chairman is Mr. Ehrlich's former running mate and Maryland's former lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele.

Then there is the matter of state finances. Declining receipts are forcing states to lay off or furlough employees, and governors like Mr. O'Malley are feeling the squeeze politically that many Americans are feeling economically. So the mood for change that swept the country in 2008 may return in 2010 - but with far different consequences for the two parties.

On the other side of the rope, however, are the forces pulling Mr. Ehrlich back, the most important of which is time.

Election day is now less than a year away, and Mr. Ehrlich has not begun the time-consuming tasks of raising sufficient campaign funds or assembling a statewide campaign and turnout operation. Running against an incumbent who will be well-funded and well-organized, Mr. Ehrlich may simply have too little, too late to capitalize on any advantages the political-economic environment offers him.

He would also not only be facing an incumbent but a much tougher electoral opponent in Martin O'Malley than he did in 2002 against the disorganized, politically challenged Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. The story of Mr. Ehrlich's historic 2002 victory was as much her failures and his successes. Meanwhile, Mr. O'Malley has had the past three years to organize the state for his re-election campaign.

There is another deterrent for Mr. Ehrlich in 2010: Sen. Barbara Mikulski will be running for re-election, too. When Mr. Ehrlich ran in 2002, it was during a congressional cycle when no Maryland U.S. Senate seat as on the ballot. Neither Ms. Mikulski nor then-Sen. Paul Sarbanes was a drawing card for fellow Democrats.

And Ms. Mikulski, vying for a fifth term, is not just any drawing card: She's the most popular Democrat statewide. She has proved she can win in places like Allegany County, where Democratic candidates of the recent past do not. Having her at the top of the ticket next year could - no, should - be a deterrent for Mr. Ehrlich.

Mr. Ehrlich is precisely the sort of candidate national Republicans ought to be recruiting: He is skilled politically, can raise money, and is not anchored to the religious fundamentalist wing that is creating so many problems for the GOP.

Whatever he decides to do, Mr. Ehrlich had better decide soon: The clock is ticking, and a late start even in a potentially good Republican cycle may be too much to overcome. If he makes no announcement before Thanksgiving, or certainly by Christmas, presumably he will not run.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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