Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. introduces his lieutenant governor,… (Baltimore Sun photo )
WASHINGTON — Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. starts his comeback run today on the outskirts of the nation's capital, where his one-time protege, Michael S. Steele, is getting loads of unflattering attention.
Ehrlich and Steele came to power in Annapolis as a team - and it's hard to imagine Steele becoming the best-known Maryland Republican in the country if Ehrlich hadn't put him on the ticket in 2002. But it could be even more surprising if Ehrlich mentions Steele in his announcement speech, after the pounding the national Republican chairman has been taking over the party's spending habits.
"I don't think anybody thinks that Steele's faux pas have anything to do with Ehrlich," said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant and Ehrlich admirer. "Steele made his decision four years ago to leave Ehrlich and run for the Senate, and now he's national chairman. I don't think there are a lot of connections there."
Steele's grip on his party job, which seemed secure until very recently, took another blow Tuesday when a Republican consultant who recently got an inside look at Steele's operation called for him to step down.
The consultant, Alex Castellanos, had agreed to serve as an unpaid adviser to the Republican National Committee last fall after Steele parted company with the RNC's top communications consultant. But Castellanos, who supported Steele's selection as chairman, was either driven off or fled from what he saw.
Steele has "lost the support of a lot of our major donors - the donors who provide the money, the lifeblood, the oxygen that the Republican Party needs to succeed on its mission to take back control of the House," Castellanos said on CNN, where he is a paid contributor. "I think a change at this moment would be a good thing."
Kendel Ehrlich, the candidate's wife, recently gave a less than full-throated endorsement of Steele's troubled tenure in Washington. After saying that the national party, under Steele, needed to "get on track" after a staffer used nearly $2,000 in donor money to visit a lesbian-themed topless club in West Hollywood, she was asked if Steele should step down as chairman.
"I don't know that this rises to that type of level," she said on WMAR-TV in Baltimore last weekend, adding that an election for chairman would be held after the November vote.
An Ehrlich campaign spokesman said the former governor would have no comment about Steele prior to the announcement swing, which begins in Rockville this morning and concludes in Halethorpe, near Ehrlich's boyhood home of Arbutus in Baltimore County.
Democrats are hoping that Ehrlich won't be able to avoid the subject for long. They e-mailed reporters a list of suggested questions for Ehrlich, starting with one about Steele's performance as RNC chairman and whether Ehrlich had asked his former lieutenant governor to campaign with him.
The furor enveloping Steele, potentially threatening his hold on the party job and prompting doubts about Republican fundraising for the 2010 campaign, is unlikely to affect many votes in the rematch between Ehrlich and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.
It is, though, focusing fresh attention on the long relationship between Maryland's two most prominent Republicans, friends and allies in politics for two decades.
Today, Steele will be in Salt Lake City as part of a tour of potential 2012 national convention sites by RNC members, his office said. He and Ehrlich have not made a habit of appearing together at events, and an RNC presentation for donors last month did not list Maryland as one of 16 states on the party's roster of top gubernatorial targets.
But in an interview after the 2009 election, Ehrlich was generous in his praise of Steele, and offered the following advice: "work your tail off...win big in 2010, set yourself up as much as you can, be as successful as you can, take advantage of the tailwinds and have as many opportunities as you can."
The two men go back so far together that Ehrlich said he could no longer recall exactly how and when they met.
"Kendel and I were dating, so it was in the early '90s," he said. At the time, Ehrlich was in the Maryland legislature and Steele was an up-and-coming Republican activist in Prince George's County. "I remember like it was yesterday, Kendel saying, 'That guy. That guy's pretty sharp.' "
Ehrlich plays down his involvement in his friend's career, even though he assisted Steele's rise through party ranks in Maryland, and he alone put Steele in position to become the first African-American lieutenant governor in state history by making him his running mate in 2002.
"There was a mutual trust," Ehrlich said, explaining his selection. But he also acknowledged that there was "not a long list" of choices in a state dominated by Democratic officeholders.
Four years later, they went separate ways in the 2006 campaign, which ended in defeat for both. They've remained friendly since, occasionally meeting for dinner or at political events. When Steele made his long-shot try for national chairman after the 2008 election, Ehrlich said he made several phone calls at Steele's request but otherwise kept his distance.
Even as Republican strategists express doubts that Steele's problems will spill into 2010 campaigns in Maryland and elsewhere, they worry that a party spending scandal in Washington would remind some voters of two reasons they abandoned the Republicans in 2006 and 2008: their failure to control government spending and demonstrate competence.
The O'Malley campaign was circumspect about Steele's recent troubles.
"We don't have much to say about the operations of the RNC," said Tom Russell, the governor's campaign manager. "Besides, I think what Bob Ehrlich has to say is much more pertinent, given his long ties with the chairman."