Election night at O'Malley HQ

Election 2006 night at Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley's headquarter at the Hippodrome Theatre. Martin O'Malley celebrates his victory with supporters. (KENNETH K. LAM / Baltimore Sun / November 7, 2006)

Buoyed by a national tide against Republicans, Mayor Martin O'Malley declared victory in the governor's race last night, appearing to have prevailed in his long and difficult campaign against a popular incumbent. Despite a poor showing in the crucial Baltimore suburbs, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he will not concede until thousands of absentee ballots are counted.

With more than four-fifths of the state's precincts reporting, Ehrlich, Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation, faced a large deficit that he could overcome only by capturing the vast majority of absentee votes.

The mood was jubilant at O'Malley's post-election party at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore, where the exuberant Democrat addressed throngs of supporters minutes after midnight.

"God bless you, Maryland," O'Malley said. "For the working families of Maryland, it is time to move Maryland forward again."

Ehrlich told several hundred backers at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore early this morning that his administration had a "decent shot" at another four years.

"We don't know, folks, we just don't know," Ehrlich said. "We will count the votes. We will count all the votes. ... We've been around 20 years, and we've got a decent shot to be around four more."

Ehrlich's speech interrupted O'Malley's televised victory declaration, prompting boos from the crowd at the Hippodrome who could see the governor's image on a big-screen television.

"I'm still waiting for the call, by the way," O'Malley said.

The returns suggested that Ehrlich was having a difficult time replicating his 2002 formula for success in heavily Democratic Maryland. O'Malley cut into the huge margins Ehrlich ran up in the suburbs that ring Baltimore and in rural Maryland while expanding on Democrats' traditional advantage in Baltimore and suburban Washington.

Republicans said they believe the governor can make up ground when the record number of absentee ballots are tallied. More than 190,000 people requested absentee ballots after calls by Ehrlich and Democratic leaders to use them as a means to bypass the state's new electronic voting machines. More Democrats than Republicans requested absentee ballots, however.

Election workers will begin counting those ballots on scanning machines tomorrow, but election challenges from the lawyers who have been retained by both political parties could prevent a winner from being officially declared for weeks. The last time an election was this close, in 1994, the losing candidate, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, pursued a legal challenge for two months and never conceded defeat.

The prospect for legal challenges was unclear early this morning.

"There are many things we're paying attention to, but tomorrow morning we'll put our heads together and see where we stand. Once we see what the facts are on the ground, we'll know better," said Sev Miller, the Ehrlich campaign's general counsel.

O'Malley campaign manager Josh White said the mayor would be prepared if Ehrlich does mount a legal challenge.

"I'm sure they'll pull out all the stops," White said. "We just hope the governor does the right thing."

Ehrlich sought re-election in Maryland in a year when a nationwide wave of dissatisfaction with Republicans swept Democrats into power.

That meant he faced a major change in the mood of Maryland's electorate since he won in 2002. When Ehrlich was deciding to get into the governor's race that year, President Bush's approval rating in Maryland was above 80 percent, according to a Sun poll. By the time Ehrlich took office a year later, that number had dipped but was still well above 50 percent.

But this year, at a time when discontent over the Iraq war and scandals in the Republican-controlled Congress has tipped national sentiment to the Democrats, Bush's approval rating is in the 30s. Many voters said it was disgust with the national political situation that drove them to the polls - and to O'Malley - even though Ehrlich's popularity and job approval ratings remained high.

"I'm trying to vote the Republicans out of every seat I can think of," said Ester Neltrup, 51, of North Laurel. She noted the war in Iraq, the U.S.A. Patriot Act and abuse of detainees in the war on terrorism as her reasons.

For Adam Hovav, 30, of Cockeysville, disenchantment with the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress prompted him to vote almost exclusively Democratic, despite his belief that Ehrlich is a moderate.

"I hate to say that I was influenced by those campaign advertisements, but all those fliers that O'Malley put out of Ehrlich with his arm around Bush really sealed it for me," he said. "Ever since Bush has been in power, it feels like the entire nation has been regressing. It's been one debacle after another. And I think it reflects badly on the entire Republican Party."

O'Malley appeared to benefit from a spike in black turnout throughout the state. Democrats, including some prominent African-American leaders, had feared that black voters would be disaffected by the losses of two high-profile African-American candidates in the primary. Instead, polling places in black communities were swamped.

Those watching the polls yesterday reported one- to two-hour waits to vote at predominantly black precincts in Prince George's County and on the west side of Baltimore County. Despite Ehrlich's attempts to reach out to African-Americans, they voted by more than a 4-to-1 margin for O'Malley, according to exit polls.

"Martin O'Malley has strong African-American support. It's real. It's tangible," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Democrat who led O'Malley's get-out-the-vote campaign in Baltimore, where she said a record number went to the polls.

O'Malley ran nearly the entire campaign with the lead, but Ehrlich's confidence never wavered. The governor launched a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign that eventually closed the gap by trumpeting his administration's accomplishments and attacking O'Malley's management of the city. Several polls conducted in the last week of the election showed the race to be a virtual tie.

Ehrlich said he kept his promises to bring fiscal order to Annapolis while funding education and protecting the Chesapeake Bay. Meanwhile, he made blistering attacks on O'Malley's management of the city, arguing that the Democrat had failed to fulfill his promises to cut crime and fix the schools.

That message, hammered into the Baltimore-area suburbs through the most expensive television advertising campaign in Maryland electoral history, appeared to resonate with many voters. Opinion polls late in the race showed that Ehrlich's leads in the suburbs, which were crucial to his victory four years ago, were increasing, and voters said yesterday that they harbored doubts about O'Malley's leadership.

"What has he done for Baltimore City that's so good that he thinks he can do it for the whole state?" said Susan Ross, 36, a stay-at-home mother from Baltimore County.

The race between Ehrlich and O'Malley has been brewing for four years, since the governor upset then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Ehrlich pledged on election night 2002 to work with the Democratic mayor, but their relationship became more rancorous over the years. The two men, who by all accounts dislike each other, clashed over a joint appointment to head the city's social services department - a dispute that eventually ended up in court - the management of city schools and electricity regulation.

Perhaps the most poisonous incident in their relationship came in the spring of 2005, when a longtime aide to the governor, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., resigned after acknowledging that he spread rumors on the Internet about the mayor's personal life.

The animosity has spilled over into the election campaign. Ehrlich repeatedly called O'Malley a "whiner" on the stump, and O'Malley derided Ehrlich as a creature of corporate interests who forgot where he came from.

All in all, it added up to a rough campaign. O'Malley aired his first critical ad of the governor in June, and Ehrlich returned fire in July. Both have waged strongly negative campaigns in television and radio ads and direct mail ever since.

"It was a very nasty campaign," said Jennifer Arnold, 39, a freelance writer who said she reluctantly voted for O'Malley. "I'm sort of disillusioned across the board."

Ehrlich, 48, has been in elective office for 20 years. A football star from blue-collar Arbutus whose competitiveness on the athletic field won him scholarships to the Gilman School in Baltimore and Princeton University, Ehrlich took on an incumbent Republican delegate in Baltimore County in 1986 and won.

Since then, he has an unbeaten streak of 15 elections (including primaries) that took him to Congress with the Republican revolution of 1994 and to the governor's mansion four years ago.

O'Malley's star has also been on the rise since he was elected mayor in 1999. He garnered frequent national attention during his tenure: by winning as a white candidate in a predominantly black city, by aggressively tackling violent crime while also pursuing increased drug treatment, and by criticizing Bush's terrorism preparedness funding to cities.

He landed on the cover of Esquire magazine as the nation's best young mayor. Not long after he was named by Time as one of the country's five best mayors.

O'Malley ran on a message that he would return the state to the side of working families by enacting policies to lower tuition and electricity rates, to expand health care coverage and to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

"I lean toward anyone who supports improving the working family," said Abeba Gebrehiwot, 53, a Realtor from Silver Spring.