A different path

Ehrlich has a potential road to success, but only if he does things differently this time

April 11, 2010|By Richard J. Cross III

As expected, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is running to reclaim his old job in Annapolis. This announcement has generated a wave of euphoria among Republicans optimistic about Mr. Ehrlich's chances.

I remember the giddiness some Republicans felt about Ellen Sauerbrey's prospects after then-Governor Parris Glendening's approval ratings dipped below 50 percent in October 1998. I also remember how shocked we all were when the networks called the race for Mr. Glendening promptly at 8 p.m. on Election Day.

While I believe that Republicans should feel enthusiasm about Mr. Ehrlich's campaign, this euphoria is dangerous.

Euphoria does not abrogate the unique advantages Maryland Democrats enjoy: more African-Americans, more government employees, and a much higher percentage of registered Democrats than even Massachusetts, which surprised the nation by electing a Republican, Scott Brown, to fill Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's former Senate seat.

Nor does this euphoria account for the fact that Governor O'Malley remains moderately popular — the most recent Rasmussen poll had his approval rating at 53 percent — and enjoys a significant head start in fundraising during a time when no evidence of scandal or significant division among Democrats exists.

Republicans must think and act as underdogs in order to have a realistic shot of winning. It's time to substitute overly heady optimism with a clear-eyed resolve to do at least four things differently this year:

Leave the past behind. Mr. Ehrlich is a proud, competitive man who believes that he clearly earned a second term in 2006. This belief, coupled with the state's economic situation, may compel Mr. Ehrlich and his aides to push a "See, you should have voted for me last time" campaign message.

That would be a mistake. Marylanders want clear, programmatic suggestions on ways to restore prosperity, not a walk down memory lane. If the race devolves into a shrill contest between two governors defending their records, Mr. Ehrlich's opportunity to offer a compelling case for change will vanish.

In 2006, Mr. Ehrlich never articulated a clear vision of what his second term would look like. He can remedy this mistake now by looking forward and focusing like a laser beam on the area where Governor O'Malley is most vulnerable: job creation.

Grow the team. In 2010, Mr. Ehrlich will run without the obvious institutional and fundraising advantages a governor has. While a powerful incumbent with a huge campaign war chest can go it alone, a challenger must leverage the efforts and energies of grass-roots supporters and volunteers.

Mr. Ehrlich needs to step out of his insular political circle and reach out to the party activists, elected officials and candidates who will exercise a greater hands-on role in this campaign. This means listening, mending fences, forging real partnerships and learning to rely on others' political coattails.

Regain the high ground on taxes. In 2006, Mr. Ehrlich's aides, mindful of the fact that the governor raised various fees, declined to engage Mr. O'Malley on taxes, depriving Mr. Ehrlich of one of the most potent issues for Republicans. This year, the Democrats seek to neutralize the issue again by equating the Ehrlich and O'Malley records on taxes.

This time, Mr. Ehrlich needs to spell out the differences between himself and Mr. O'Malley. He should deliver a speech explaining the difference between increasing transportation fees to meet specific transportation needs, and simply pouring more money into the state's general fund.

Embrace early voting. This year, Marylanders will have their first opportunity to visit polling places and cast their votes prior to Election Day. Early voting programs have played important roles in Florida, Texas, Tennessee and other states. Maryland Republicans should leave their skepticism behind and embrace early voting as a tool either party can effectively use. This may require tapping the expertise of people who have done this successfully in other states.

Victory won't be achieved by expecting a Massachusetts-style miracle or blithely hoping the voters will "get it" on their own. It can only be achieved by a strategy tailored to current challenges and opportunities. That means taking the 2002 victory playbook and throwing it out the window. And it means having the courage and the clarity to do things differently.

Richard J. Cross III, a Baltimore resident, is a former press secretary and speechwriter to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His e-mail is rcrossiii@comcast.net.

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