Where Ehrlich went wrong

Former governor's campaign started late and then dwelled on the past

November 02, 2010|By Richard J. Cross III

People will long debate the reasons why Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s comeback attempt failed in the most favorable year for Republicans since 1994. But for me, it boils down to one thing: "Ehrlich 2010" was the most poorly conceived and executed campaign for governor of Maryland in recent memory.

It was a mishmash of muddled messaging, improvised strategy and course correction. No cohesive game plan or strategy for victory was evident. Instead, Team Ehrlich assumed that the same kind of national wave they blamed for sweeping them out of office would carry them back.

In 2010, they made four core mistakes.

•They started too late. Mr. Ehrlich's fundraising team — which raised about $7 million in just six months — did a fantastic job. But Gov. Martin O'Malley already had millions of dollars in his war chest before Mr. Ehrlich announced, so it was not enough to close the yawning fundraising gap between them.

If Mr. Ehrlich had commenced his campaign in January instead of April, he could have made up lost ground while Mr. O'Malley was banned from fundraising during the legislative session. He could conceivably have raised another $3 million — enough money to fund three weeks of saturation advertising in both the Baltimore and Washington media markets.

•They were outmaneuvered on fiscal issues. Through its ads, the O'Malley campaign undermined Team Ehrlich's ability to articulate a clear difference between the candidates on taxes and spending. Team Ehrlich abetted these attacks by having no effective rebuttal. Instead, it resorted to process explanations, like insisting that taxes and fees are different without explaining why, and that voting for a property tax increase in the Board of Public Works is somehow different than signing it into law. This made the Democrats' job easier.

•They relied on old ideas. Often it is said that the generals are always fighting the last war. Unfortunately for Bob Ehrlich, the generals fighting the new war were the same ones who lost the last one.

Mr. Ehrlich's senior aides were veterans of the 2002 and 2006 campaigns. Their over-reliance on experience, myopic commitment to the same tactics and reluctance to engage outsiders with new ideas ("They never returned my call" was a common refrain among activists with whom I spoke) worked against them.

In the end, they repeated many past strategic errors, including pushing multiple messages, winging debate preparation, naïvely attempting to win over entrenched Democratic constituencies and refusing to court conservatives who supported Brian Murphy.

•They ran on a record, not a vision. Concerned about jobs and the economy, voters in 2010 wanted clear, specific solutions. The campaign presented only a fragmentary case for how Mr. Ehrlich would fix the economy. It seemingly expected voters to accept that electing Mr. Ehrlich would naturally improve things because the economy had been better when he was governor.

The substance of the campaign's "Roadmap 2020" seemed less important than its existence. Other than occasionally citing the "Roadmap" as evidence of forward-looking thinking, Team Ehrlich seemed content to re-run the 2006 campaign.

For example, the campaign hosted a press event in eastern Baltimore County touting Mr. Ehrlich's wastewater treatment initiative, resulting in news stories in which the phrase "flush tax" was prominently mentioned. The campaign also became preoccupied with "re-litigating" the 2006 BGE rate increase, the Baltimore City schools takeover controversies, credit for charter schools, and Mr. O'Malley's policing policies as mayor of Baltimore.

In the end, the O'Malley campaign framed the race as a choice between two de facto incumbents: a governor who taxed more than he spent, and a former governor who spent more than he taxed. Given two status quo choices, most voters saw no compelling reason to make a change. (One wonders whether Mr. Murphy or Larry Hogan — successful businessmen who could credibly have run under the change banner — would have fared better.)

It is to be hoped that state Republicans will view this loss as an opportunity to grow. That means focusing on future-oriented activities like developing tomorrow's leaders, offering better ideas and putting aside what worked in the past once and for all.

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, and he blogs at http://www.rjc-crosspurposes.blogspot.com.

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