Governor to launch re-election campaign

O’Malley, Brown to hold three days of events around state

April 26, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

As Gov. Martin O'Malley kicks off his re-election campaign on Tuesday, his arguments may have a familiar feel.

Many of the same issues that he and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown rode to victory four years ago are poised to return.

Spending, taxes and slots are all potential pitfalls for incumbent Democrats as they begin a three-day tour that will take them from Democratic bastions such as Baltimore and the Washington suburbs to battlegrounds such as Glen Burnie and Waldorf and Republican-leaning territory in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

The O'Malley-Brown team faces a challenge from former Calvert County Del. George Owings in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, but that contest is widely expected to be a warm-up for a rematch against former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, in the Nov. 2 general election.

Unlike 2006, when O'Malley — then mayor of Baltimore — ousted Ehrlich in a hotly contested battle, the Republican will not be carrying the burden of a deeply unpopular president of his own party. The state of the economy has Republicans optimistic they can make significant gains even in deeply blue states such as Maryland. So far, polls have shown O'Malley with a far-from-comfortable lead in a race where the candidates would share the advantages and burdens of near-universal name recognition.

And then there's the "grudge match" factor.

While Ehrlich has said he doesn't see the likely rematch in those terms, he and O'Malley have a history of ill will between them that goes beyond philosophical differences. Ehrlich used his campaign launch to revive his 2006 charge that O'Malley is a "whiner," while O'Malley has consistently portrayed Ehrlich as the tool of big business interests.

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, said personality will inevitably become a significant factor as the two charismatic candidates renew their rivalry.

"I don't think you can avoid that," he said. "There will be an element of a grudge match."

While the theme of the O'Malley campaign tour is "Moving Maryland Forward," the governor will be forced to defend the record of a four-year term during which there hasn't been enough money to move the state very far in any direction. For much of O'Malley's tenure, the state's economy has been gripped by a national recession that has cut deeply into revenue collection and forced difficult budget cuts. Even one of the governor's proudest accomplishments — holding the line on state university tuitions — had to be abandoned this year under severe budget pressure.

O'Malley campaign manager Tom Russell said the governor will campaign on a record of making progress even in difficult economic times — pointing to the high performance of state schools in national rankings and a decrease in violent crime.

Ehrlich is expected to zero in on a series of unpopular revenue measures O'Malley pushed through in 2007 — particularly a bump in the sales tax to 6 percent that he has said he would repeal.

"Our core issues are helping in job creation and lowering taxes and balancing the budget," said Ehrlich campaign spokesman Andy Barth.

But O'Malley has signaled that he will push back by pointing a finger at the expansion in government spending during Ehrlich's term, when the real estate boom and robust national growth helped finance generous budgets. Russell said Department of Legislative Services figures show that general fund spending has declined by 3 percent during the past four years but increased by 33 percent during Ehrlich's term.

"When voters are looking for a financially responsible governor and they compare the records, Governor O'Malley is going to come out on top," Russell said.

Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College in Chestertown, said any call by Ehrlich to repeal the sales tax increase would raise questions about the budget cuts or revenue increases that would be needed to fill the resulting $600 million gap.

"If he does run, saying we have to repeal the sales tax, then he's going to have to show where that's offset," she said. Barth said the Ehrlich campaign would do so later this year "as the issues unfold."

But Steve Crim, a Republican consultant in Crofton, said the former governor could run on a tax repeal pledge without spelling out specific budget cuts.

"He has a level of credibility that I think people would buy into it," Crim said. He said that in a year when voters' No. 1 concern is jobs, Ehrlich's pro-business message will carry a lot of weight.

Eberly said Ehrlich might be able to find an effective campaign issue by aligning himself with a movement to rewrite the Maryland Constitution at a statewide convention —a question that will be on the ballot in November. In most years, Eberly said, the proposition would be a nonstarter, but in Tea Party-influenced 2010 he wouldn't rule it out.

But Deckman said that in a state dominated by Democrats, the odds still favor O'Malley.

"He hasn't set the world on fire, but I don't think he's made any huge missteps," she said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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