Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley cruised to a second term Tuesday - and with it, won the opportunity to guide the state in what he hopes will be an improving economy - while Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. suffered a second consecutive statewide defeat, leaving his political future in doubt.
The much-anticipated rematch between the Maryland political heavyweights began as a dead heat, but polls in recent weeks had shown O'Malley pulling away from his longtime rival. Defying a national Republican surge, the Democrat appeared on track late Tuesday night to beat Ehrlich by a wider margin than during their initial race in 2006.
O'Malley took the stage at his Election Night celebration in Baltimore about 10:40 p.m. to thank voters for sending him back to Annapolis.
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"The people of Maryland decided once again that we move Maryland forward," the 47-year-old former Baltimore mayor thundered, repeating his campaign theme.
Flanked by his wife, Katie Curran O'Malley, and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, he highlighted his work in protecting priorities such as the Chesapeake Bay and public education even as he cut the state budget amid declining state revenues.
"We're not out of the deep hole," he said. "But we are coming back. " Tonight we chose a better future for the children of Maryland."
Ehrlich, addressing supporters at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, congratulated O?Malley.
"We wish him well and the state well," the former governor said. "This is our state."
Toward the end of the campaign, O'Malley had taken to calling Maryland a - bright spot - for Democrats in an election season that saw many in the party facing tough reelection battles.
Maryland, home to more than twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, also re-elected Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Comptroller Peter Franchot, both Democrats, and affirmed the party's majorities in the House of Delegates and state Senate.
O'Malley's campaign manager said Democrats nationally might consider Maryland - a success story to be studied. "A lot of incumbent Democrats are doing very poorly," Tom Russell said. "People will be looking to see what was the difference here."
Voter turnout was -right in line- with other recent gubernatorial elections, said deputy elections administrator Ross Goldstein. About 60 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, either on Election Day, absentee or, for the first time, during six days of early voting.
Ehrlich's defeat in what was a good year for his party elsewhere could send the state's most popular Republican, a 52-yearold who held elected office for two decades, into political retirement. Ehrlich has said in recent days that he was unlikely to run for office again if he lost.
In 2006, O'Malley rode an anti-Republican wave to best Ehrlich by 6.5 percentage points. After leaving office in January 2007, the former governor managed a Baltimore law office and hosted a talk-radio show with his wife, Kendel.
Republican wins in Virginia, New Jersey last fall and Massachusetts in January, coupled with negative reverberations about President Barack Obama and the national health care debate, stoked Ehrlich?s interest in a return bid.
Kendel Ehrlich nudged her husband into the race, the former governor has said, and she said Tuesday that she had -no regrets.- "He ran the campaign that he wanted to run," she said. "This was the year to do it." In a state with overwhelmingly Democratic registration, Ehrlich's chances hinged on voters being willing to put aside their party affiliation, said his campaign spokesman, Henry Fawell. "We always knew this would be a high-wire act in Maryland," he said.
After seeing a disappointing turnout in the September primary, Democrats got to work activating their base for the general election. O'Malley brought Obama to Bowie and former President Bill Clinton to Baltimore in October. And O'Malley's greenshirted troops deployed in force last month to encourage early voting in the Democratic strongholds of Prince George's County and Baltimore City.
The strategy appeared to pay off: In early voting, Prince George's residents favored O'Malley to Ehrlich by a 10-to-1 margin. As the votes were counted last night, O'Malley seemed able to keep the race close in Republican- friendly Anne Arundel County and in Ehrlich's native Baltimore County. And the governor won handily in liberal and populous Montgomery County.
In a blitz of last-minute pep rallies and speeches across the state, O'Malley called his four years as governor -miserable.
hard, really difficult years.- State unemployment has doubled since he took office, mirroring a nationwide trend. The governor has emphasized that Maryland, blessed by its proximity to Washington and federal jobs, is creating jobs at a faster pace than most states.