You can't blame Bob Ehrlich too much. The elephant in the room is not a Republican. The elephant in the room is the Maryland Democratic Party. In 2010, Maryland might be the bluest of all the blue states, making it impossible for even a well-financed Republican to win a gubernatorial election here for the foreseeable future. Republicans are heavily outnumbered and organizationally outclassed by Democrats.
Let's face it: The main reason Bob Ehrlich was governor at all — from 2003 until 2007 — was because he defeated a weak opponent in 2002, and the state Democratic Party is unlikely to let that kind of thing happen again.
Still, Ehrlich at least could have made his swan song interesting.
What was his song?
What was his 2010 message to voters? What was the credo of his campaign to unseat Martin O'Malley and return triumphant, Kendel at his side, to Annapolis?
You can't say. You can't say because Ehrlich never achieved clarity of any message that resonated with voters. He could never really answer why he was running for governor again — it looked like a frat boy grudge match to most of us — and he failed to pin blame for the global recession on Martin O'Malley. Those are the main reasons why he lost yesterday. Here was an experienced Republican politician, still young and trim, who couldn't come close to upsetting an incumbent Democrat who inspires dutiful support but little passion among his followers — and at a time when anti-incumbent fever had spread like kudzu across the countryside.
Not even a strong turnout in Anne Arundel County over the slots referendum — opposed by the incessantly-calculating O'Malley — could help Bobby Slots. Maryland's tea party groups couldn't — or wouldn't — help him, either.
"Unfinished business," was his answer, in an interview last spring, when I asked why Ehrlich was running against O'Malley. What was this unfinished business? What grand things remained incomplete when his rival for senior class president rose up from Baltimore in 2006 to take away the keys to Government House?
More charter schools, he said, and services for people with disabilities, and business development, and reduced sales tax, and perhaps a reduction of tuition at community colleges.
And don't forget the Corsica River, Ehrlich said.
"The Corsica River project, you may not even have heard about," he said, going on to explain how his administration had championed the cleanup of the Corsica. It was a "neat project," he said.
"So a lot of unfinished business on things I really care about," he added.
Not much of a message, and it didn't get much better in the months that followed, not in a way that resonated.
Meanwhile, stick-to-the-script-and-someday-I'll-be-president O'Malley kept promising to "Move Maryland Forward."
So, bye-bye, Bob. Thanks for the memories. The Maryland Republican Party has lost its most attractive candidate for anything. The next most attractive Republican candidate for anything is the former first lady, Kendel Ehrlich. The next most attractive is probably E.J. Pipkin, the state senator from the Eastern Shore. Maybe the state GOP can regroup and come up with a strategic plan for 2014 or 2018. That's assuming there's the money and the will behind such an effort. After Ehrlich's defeat, and his likely departure from politics, it's hard to imagine the national party exerting much effort here.
O'Malley, meanwhile, is one step closer to a run for the Senate and/or the presidency. Obviously, that's at least six and maybe 10 years away. But, barring a major goof or scandal in his next four years, he'll remain the state's most attractive Democratic candidate for anything, and he'll draw national attention. He's played it smart and cool. He managed to get the state through a budget mess during recession, managed to win re-election convincingly — at least as measured by the numbers, though not in depth of passion. And statewide the Democrats are strong. In the red tide of 2010, Maryland is bluer than ever.