Maryland’s own race to the top

Our view

April 28, 2010

As Shakespeare might say, cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. The grudge match anticipated almost from the day that Martin O'Malley was elected governor four years ago is now — with Mr. O'Malley's re-election bid made official today — a virtual certainty.

Never mind that both men are likely to face primary challenges before that can happen. Even Goldman Sachs wouldn't short sell either Mr. O'Malley or his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Liberal Democrats in the Baltimore-Washington corridor are about as likely to prefer former Del. George Owings as vote for his pro-gun and anti-motorcycle-helmet agenda.

Mr. O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown were all smiles at their announcement in Fells Point, the first in a series of an ear-numbing 11 such events. Shy and reclusive these candidates are not. Even by the customary standards for such pomp and circumstance, it was an impressive kick-off, with endorsements and praise from the usual suspects of elected officials and organizations loyal to their party.

In an average election year (think Harry R. Hughes or William Donald Schaefer), a Democratic incumbent governor in this state could practically leave the political machinery in cruise control. And Maryland has only gotten more Democratic-leaning since the last gubernatorial election.

But the candidate Martin O'Malley 2.0 has most to fear is not Mr. Ehrlich but the expectations raised by Martin O'Malley 1.0. Even in this bluest of blue states, the economic recession has made voters restless and unpredictable. If the essence of any re-election campaign is the question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" then the incumbent has good reason for concern.

As delighted as Mr. O'Malley's staff may have been with today's blue skies and fair weather, they probably wouldn't have chosen to announce his candidacy on the same day that Virginia officially welcomed Northrop Grumman's new headquarters. Talk about a sudden squall. The incumbent's pledge of a "jobs, jobs, jobs" agenda is undermined when the jobs, jobs, jobs are headed to the other side of the Potomac River.

No candidate wants to run under these difficult circumstances. Never mind that the job losses Maryland has experienced are far less painful than what most states have endured — and in any case are largely out of control of the state's chief executive.

The average Maryland resident probably spends about a nanosecond, if that, contemplating the challenges of serving as governor in a time of crisis. The sizeable task facing Mr. O'Malley is to persuade voters that he could only play the cards he was dealt, most notably the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The governor today had a long list of accomplishments to brag about, from expanded health care to improvements in schools and reductions in crime. But all could be trumped by the recession. The latest polls show an Ehrlich-O'Malley rematch is likely to be close, a finding made all the more remarkable by Mr. Ehrlich's delayed (and somewhat casual) entry into the race.

For an incumbent who likes to brag about public school progress, it's somewhat ironic that Mr. O'Malley must now rely on voters to grade him on a curve, measuring his record against the reality he faced. By that standard he is likely to do well, but is the electorate in the mood to be reasonable or unforgiving with incumbents right now?

That's too difficult to predict almost seven months before the general election. But one thing is clear: This is shaping up to be a historic contest. No two Maryland governors have faced each other in an election since Daniel Martin was restored to the office over Thomas King Carroll by a vote of the state legislature in 1831. It's never happened since Maryland governors became popularly elected six years later.

One can hope that for all the sound and fury this 21st Century battle is likely to generate, there will be room for a measure of thoughtful debate and discussion as well.

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