Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. described his gubernatorial election loss this week as the close of a chapter in his life. It could also signal the end of an era for the Maryland GOP.
As Republicans nationwide celebrated a historic victory in the midterm elections, GOP leaders in Maryland expressed worry that Ehrlich's loss Tuesday to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley by twice the margin of his 2006 defeat would cement the party's minority status here.
"Bob gave hope that we might actually move to a two-party system," Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a two-time Republican gubernatorial nominee, said Wednesday. "That hope was a little diluted last night. … What I see ahead is a recognition that we have to build the party from the ground up."
Ehrlich, who has dominated Maryland Republicans for a decade, said in the waning days of the campaign that he would be unlikely to run again for public office.
"This might be the last time we get to talk to all of you together," he told Election Night supporters at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium on Tuesday. "It is not sad. Please believe me, it is not sad. … There will be a new generation coming up, new candidates."
Ehrlich declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article.
"I think nobody likes to lose," spokesman Henry Fawell said. "I think the only feeling that would have been worse was to not run."
Ehrlich defeated Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002 to become the first Republican elected governor of Maryland in 36 years. It's an achievement he relished, saying frequently on the campaign trail, "I'm the only Republican governor you've ever met."
But O'Malley beat him by 6.5 percentage points in 2006, and by 13.5 percentage points Tuesday.
"I don't know if we are going to see another [Republican governor of Maryland] in the next 40 years," said Mary Kane, his running mate. "It is a shame."
Ehrlich has told supporters his next move will likely be a return to the Baltimore office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge and Rice, the North Carolina law firm for which he has worked since his 2006 loss. Managing partner David Hamilton indicated Wednesday the firm would be glad to have him back.
Ehrlich has also spoken of publishing a book and coaching his son's youth football team. Out of office, he co-hosted a talk-radio show with his wife, Kendel, on WBAL-AM, until he announced his candidacy. A station spokesman did not return calls about a possible return to what is now the Kendel Ehrlich Show.
In an election climate that favored the GOP — and saw the election of a new Maryland Republican in the 1st Congressional District — the much-anticipated rematch between Ehrlich and O'Malley never seemed to fully engage.
With more money earlier, O'Malley was first on the air with television and radio advertisements that questioned Ehrlich's credibility on taxes and attacked his ties to business. One radio spot sought to tie him to this year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill; several claimed his work for Womble amounted to lobbying.
Ehrlich didn't have the money to respond to the attacks, and he never appeared to recover. While he attempted to make inroads into O'Malley's support in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, he ended up struggling to defend his Baltimore County base, where the candidates finished in a virtual tie.
A bright spot was his use of social media. As of Wednesday evening, Ehrlich's Facebook page had attracted 65,999 friends. He has expressed interest in staying in touch with those supporters; Kane said Wednesday that they'll "keep it going."
If Ehrlich has run his last race, his loss this week ends nearly a quarter-century in politics. He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1986 and to Congress in 1994.
Eight years later, he calculated that Townsend, then lieutenant governor, would be a weak candidate for governor, and left his safe seat in Washington to run. He won by 69,000 votes and presided over four years of relative prosperity.
In 2006, O'Malley rode national anger against then-President George W. Bush to unseat Ehrlich. Some allies say Ehrlich dwelled on the defeat and focused too much during the 2010 race on comparisons between his record and O'Malley's.
In a year when voters told pollsters they wanted to throw politicians out of office, those comparisons allowed O'Malley to portray his challenger as a fellow incumbent, blunting what could have been an Ehrlich advantage.
Ehrlich supporters say O'Malley and the Democratic General Assembly will now raise taxes, spelling more tough times for the business community. O'Malley said Wednesday he will submit a budget with no new taxes, though that won't preclude the legislature from adding levies if it chooses.
"This state has embraced more spending and more government," said Hamilton, the Womble Carlyle partner.