In Maryland, bluest of states, Bob Ehrlich tries to ice skate uphill

April 01, 2010|By Ron Smith

It's a little bit of a mystery to me why former Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants to "ice skate uphill," as a listener put it, battling the blinding blueness of Maryland's political landscape in an attempt to win back his old job from Martin O'Malley, the man who sent him packing in 2006.

So let's try to unravel it. Remember, this loss happened despite positive approval ratings for Mr. Ehrlich. Remember also that he was the only incumbent governor in the nation to be ousted on election day in 2006. No one is more aware than he is of the formidable odds against him.

Maryland is dependably Democratic, home to huge numbers of federal government employees and people who work in businesses catering to government. It's also the state with the largest percentage of black residents outside the Deep South, and we know that vote skews Democratic by more than 9 to 1.

There's also the memory of how the Democratic state legislature stonewalled the Republican interloper on virtually everything, battling him tooth and nail over slots, for example, determined not to give him anything resembling a legislative victory. Mike Busch, the House speaker, a onetime buddy of Mr. Ehrlich when they were both in the General Assembly, gave not an inch in his opposition to slots until, that is, Governor O'Malley had restored the total political dominance of his party that had been so briefly interrupted by the Ehrlich victory in 2002.

There are other significant obstacles to be overcome for this comeback try to succeed. There are few signs that the anti-incumbent fervor is as great in Maryland as it is in many other states. Polls show Governor O'Malley to be pretty popular, with a six-point lead in a rematch with Mr. Ehrlich and with 40 times as much money in his campaign war chest, nearly $6 million compared to a mere $142,000 for the Republican.

That gap will surely shrink now that Mr. Ehrlich has said he will run, but there is likely to be an enduring money advantage to the incumbent as the campaign rolls on.

There's also no new face in this contest. Both men are well known and probably pretty much well understood.

And yet, just as anti-Bush sentiment played a large roll in the O'Malley win in 2006, so might a growing anti-Obama/Pelosi/Reid mood motivate voters favoring the challenger to turn out in numbers disproportionate to the Democratic voters. We can be certain that the Ehrlich camp has polling numbers suggesting that this campaign can be won, or else he wouldn't be running.

My guess is that the Republican victories in three states that went strongly for Mr. Obama in the presidential election -- Robert McDonnell winning the governor's race in Virginia, Chris Christie beating gadzillionare incumbent governor Jon Corzine in New Jersey, and Scott Brown's amazing win in the special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts -- were decisive in the Ehrlich decision.

One thing about Bob Ehrlich that I can vouch for is his sheer competitiveness. He wants to win at everything he does, and he loves the competition in the political arena. His loss four years ago was the first in his political career. It rankled. It hurt a lot. Some people don't understand why a man like him wouldn't be satisfied with the high-paying job with a major law firm that he has and be glad to get on with life in the private sphere.

It doesn't do it for him. He wants redemption. He wants to persuade a majority of Maryland voters that they made a mistake in 2006. Everybody knows there isn't another Republican in this Democrat-heavy state that could give Martin O'Malley any electoral trouble. Bob Ehrlich can. And that will make this election year in Maryland a lot spicier than it would have been otherwise.

This newspaper's editorial board said Wednesday that the former governor's entry into the race is welcome if it means a real debate about the future of the state and doesn't deteriorate into "a schoolyard fight." The editorial said the two men should not "succumb to the temptation to refight old battles." Heck, I hope they do. It will be such fun.

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