Ehrlich and Steele's reversals of fortune

One is stepping back into the spotlight, while the other's gaffes prompt grumbling

  • Gov. Martin O'Malley had proposed a debate: Robert L. Ehrlich's campaign suggested a "simple one-hour discussion." In the end: nothing.
Gov. Martin O'Malley had proposed a debate: Robert L.… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
April 06, 2010

My, how quickly fortunes change in politics. About a year ago, Maryland Republicans Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Michael S. Steele seemed like politicians headed in opposite directions.

Mr. Steele's stock was rising. After some deft maneuvering during the Republican National Committee's annual meeting in Washington, Maryland's former lieutenant governor fought his way through several rounds of balloting to win the RNC chairmanship — the first African-American to do so. The Republicans needed fresh and nonwhite faces to lead their party in the Barack Obama era, and Mr. Steele offered both.

Mr. Ehrlich, meanwhile, was doing well enough for himself in the private sector, working for a prestigious Baltimore law firm. But the former governor rarely made political news. It seemed entirely possible, even probable, that his political career had ended at the still-young age of 48, when he lost the governorship in 2006 to Martin O'Malley.

Fast forward to today, and Mr. Steele is still attracting more media attention than his former boss — but it's not the sort the RNC chair would prefer.

After repeated foot-in-mouth blunders since taking RNC helm (among other gaffes, Mr. Steele angered his party's base supporters by telling GQ magazine that abortion was an individual choice and by calling radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh's style "ugly" and "incendiary") the nation's top Republican official really stepped in it last month.

Recent RNC federal election filings reveal a penchant by Mr. Steele for living the good life during the economic recession.

As reported by The Daily Caller, a Washington political Web site, Mr. Steele likes to fly on private jets. He even inquired into the possibility of having the RNC buy a private jet to use for his travels. At a time when many people are losing their homes to foreclosure, Mr. Steele spent more than $15,000 on hotel tabs at the Beverly Hills Hotel and the nearby Four Seasons.

Large hotel and airfare costs would be justifiable if the RNC under Mr. Steele was raking in record bucks, but that's not the case. The committee's fundraising numbers are down; according to The Hill, the RNC's cash-on-hand total right now is at a 10-year low. Top national Republicans are privately grumbling that Mr. Steele has been too much show and not enough dough.

While Mr. Steele in recent weeks has been managing bad news cycles, Mr. Ehrlich remained almost deafeningly quiet about his electoral intentions. Throughout the winter, Marylanders continued to wonder if and when Mr. Ehrlich would announce his plans for a rematch against Mr. O'Malley.

A week ago, via Facebook, Mr. Ehrlich finally let supporters know he's in. In back-to-back events tomorrow at the Rockville Town Center and Halethorpe's American Legion, the former governor will officially kick off his bid to recapture his old office on the second floor of the State House in Annapolis.

Mr. O'Malley is the favorite. The latest poll shows him leading his predecessor by nine points. But as we saw in the Massachusetts Senate special election this past winter, numbers can change quickly. Although Mr. Ehrlich took his sweet time deciding to declare his candidacy, seven months is still plenty long enough to close the gap.

The 2010 governor's race should be a barnburner. It pits the top state politician this decade from each party, and rematches usually make for good copy. And as The Sun's Julie Bykowicz reports, most of the key campaign staffers and advisers from the 2006 contest will be back again for Ehrlich-O'Malley II.

What's different between now and 2006? Short answer: the political environment.

The 2006 cycle provided a strong tailwind for Democrats from coast to coast. That advantage, combined with a well-organized O'Malley campaign field operation and a motivated Democratic base, helped propel the then-Baltimore mayor to a solid victory.

Four years later, the electoral script has flipped. Despite Mr. Steele's shaky stewardship of the national party, Republicans across the country are anticipating a 2010 wave that will sweep out Democratic incumbents. Mr. Ehrlich is betting on that wave: His Facebook page already touts the fact that one electoral prognosticator has rated the Maryland gubernatorial race "competitive."

The Ehrlich-Steele tandem shook up Maryland politics in 2002. After losing in 2006, the two men went their separate ways, with Mr. Ehrlich staying close to home and Mr. Steele setting his course for national politics. For a while, it looked as though Mr. Steele — who owes much of his career to Mr. Ehrlich — had left his former boss in the political dust.

But a year is an eternity in American politics. Now, at the same moment Mr. Ehrlich is prepping for another gubernatorial run, Mr. Steele finds himself running for political cover.

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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