Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. confirmed Tuesday that he will try to reclaim his former job as governor, hoping to benefit from a national anti-incumbent sentiment that emerged since the last presidential election and has deepened during the health care debate.
If victorious, Ehrlich, a Republican, would become the first politician in modern Maryland history to win a rematch after losing as an incumbent governor. Ehrlich was defeated by Democrat Martin O'Malley in 2006, the only sitting governor ousted by voters that year. Ehrlich, 52, has been contemplating a rematch with O'Malley for months, and said he was encouraged by the mood of voters he encountered during recent travels.
"There's a real sense of concern about the direction our state is taking," Ehrlich said in a conference call with reporters, adding that he plans to launch his campaign April 7 in Rockville, followed by a stop in Baltimore County.
His campaign, Ehrlich said, would be "about new ideas and proven leadership in Annapolis." He did not provide specifics on Tuesday, however, saying voters should "stay tuned" to find out what the ideas were.
While Republicans in recent months have captured the governors' offices held by Democrats in New Jersey and Virginia and a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, it remains unclear whether the party can be similarly successful in Maryland -- where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin and polls show the incumbent to be fairly popular.
A recent Rasmussen poll recorded a 6 percentage point lead for O'Malley over Ehrlich, prompting analyst Stuart Rothenberg to re-classify the race from "safe" to "narrow advantage" for O'Malley.
The Maryland contest might not be a priority for Republicans nationally, however. The Republican National Committee, headed by former Ehrlich Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, did not include Maryland on a list of top 16 gubernatorial targets recently shared with donors.
"I don't think the mood of the country is going to change what happens in Maryland this fall," said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County . "We're a very blue state, and we've got an incumbent governor who's reasonably popular and has a positive record to run on."
Jennifer Duffy, with The Cook Political Report in Washington, said she has "not seen a lot of polling that suggests that voters in Maryland are as unhappy as they are in some states." And O'Malley's polling numbers are "right-side up," meaning more people approve of the job he is doing than disapprove, which, she said, "makes him a rare governor these days."
Still, Norris said, the race is "not a gimme by any stretch," and both he and Duffy predicted it would be hard-fought.
Republican strategists are more optimistic, saying irritation with health care changes and other government expansion moves, coupled with Ehrlich's re-emergence, will give the beleaguered state party a shot in the arm.
Ehrlich is "perfectly positioned" to challenge O'Malley, said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist in Maryland who is not involved with Ehrlich's campaign. He said Ehrlich can easily translate national fury on a state level.
"Democrats have locked themselves in as the party of big government, and there's a pattern of spending and growth in Maryland," Reed said.
Maryland Republican Party Chairwoman Audrey Scott said she has seen "phenomenal" interest and participation in her party in recent months.
Ehrlich said his own polling, which he would not share, has been promising. "Suffice it to say, it's good enough that we're talking today," he said.
A former four-term congressman who began his career as a state delegate, Ehrlich starts his second gubernatorial campaign at a significant financial disadvantage. His campaign account contained $140,000 in January, compared with more than $5 million in O'Malley's. Richard E. Hug, Ehrlich's longtime fund-raiser, said recently that the race will be "about the message and the messenger," rather than the money.
After his defeat in 2006, Ehrlich opened the Baltimore branch of a North Carolina law firm and launched a Saturday radio talk show with his wife on WBAL. He would not say Tuesday how his candidacy will affect his career at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice or the show, but promised to answer such questions on the day of his formal announcement.
He said it will be some time before he selects a running mate, something he must do before the state's candidate filing deadline in July. O'Malley, who is expected to campaign again with Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, also has not filed.
Ehrlich said his wife, Kendel, and 10-year-old son, Drew, are "excited" that he's running. He also has a 6-year-old, Josh.