Anthony G. Brown's loss in Maryland's gubernatorial election was an unexpected setback for state Democrats — but it also represented a possible problem for the party's patriarch, Gov. Martin O'Malley, as he eyes a campaign for president in 2016.
Republican Larry Hogan's win in the race, which many framed as a referendum on O'Malley's two terms in Annapolis, prompted questions almost immediately about whether the Democratic governor could appeal to voters in early presidential primary states if he was unable to sell his policies at home.
Attention among Washington insiders quickly shifted Wednesday from the election that had just concluded to the one on the horizon. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said the outcome in Maryland was a repudiation of O'Malley's record.
"They're rejecting the policies of Marty O'Malley and his lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown, who was the candidate of high taxes and big spending," Christie said on "CBS This Morning." "Even for Maryland, it got to be too much. That's quite an accomplishment."
Christie — the head of the Republican Governors Association who repeatedly campaigned for Hogan in Maryland — was a telling choice to deliver the message. Pundits continue to speculate about a possible presidential bid by Christie despite a scandal last year involving lane closures on the George Washington Bridge that caused many to write off his political future.
But while fellow Democrats described the loss in Maryland as a stumbling block, they warned against counting O'Malley out based solely on Brown's defeat.
"It certainly is a setback," said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. "It's definitely another weapon or argument that will be used, but I don't think it will amount to much."
Others noted that O'Malley faces many obstacles as he considers a White House bid, and some — such as a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy — are far more daunting.
O'Malley crisscrossed the country in recent weeks to support congressional and gubernatorial candidates running in close midterm contests and to raise his profile among donors and the party faithful in states such as New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. His speeches focused heavily on his record in Annapolis and as Baltimore's mayor.
The Maryland governor has a host of liberal accomplishments to tout to Democratic voters, such as repealing the state's death penalty, raising the minimum wage and pushing the legalization of same-sex marriage through the General Assembly. Some of his ideas won resounding support from state voters at the ballot box.
Just four years ago, O'Malley beat former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. by more than 14 points in a midterm election that also saw significant GOP gains nationally.
But Tuesday's election was different, and most analysts put O'Malley squarely in the "loser" column. Democrats handed control of the U.S. Senate to the GOP for the first time in eight years and lost gubernatorial elections in traditionally blue states, including Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland.
O'Malley's support at home, meanwhile, ebbed this year. Nearly six in 10 Maryland voters polled by The Baltimore Sun last month said they would not back the governor if he sought the Democratic nomination for president; 14 percent said they would.
With Brown's loss, O'Malley will now be vulnerable to the charge that he turned a blue state into a red one, said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College.
"It's probably done some serious damage to O'Malley's less-than-serious bid for the White House," Eberly quipped.
But others questioned how much the loss in Maryland had to do with O'Malley versus Brown himself, or the national tide that favored the GOP. Aides to the governor have long noted that O'Malley's opponents attacked his policies in television commercials during this election when he didn't have much of a platform to respond.
Through a spokesman, O'Malley declined to discuss the election Wednesday.
Kathy Sullivan, a former Democratic Party chairwoman in New Hampshire, said O'Malley's bigger problem is a lack of recognition among state voters there. If that changes, Sullivan predicted most voters probably wouldn't hold Brown's loss against him.
"I don't think people are going to care one way or the other," she said. "You can't base your judgment on one election, especially when they're not on the ballot."
Sullivan noted that outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, also frequently at the center of 2016 Democratic speculation, was unable to help his party keep the governor's office Tuesday.
Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa, said the election in Maryland will not be defining for O'Malley. "A lot of folks will just say, 'It was a Republican year,'" he said.
"Right now," he added, "the bigger problem for Martin O'Malley is that he's still relatively invisible out here."
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.