Making her first incursion into Maryland politics, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stirred up the gubernatorial race Wednesday with an unexpected endorsement of Republican businessman Brian Murphy in his long-shot primary challenge against former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
The former Republican vice presidential nominee, popular among GOP voters even as she polarizes the wider electorate, has spent the 2010 election cycle endorsing congressional and gubernatorial candidates around the country who share her pro-gun and anti- abortion views. Still, the 88-word message on her Facebook page Wednesday surprised political watchers in Maryland and across the nation, who had been paying little attention to Murphy.
Now Palin's backing — and the money and support of her followers — could bring new energy to the 33-year-old commodities trader-turned-bakery-owner, who has yet to register in the polls. The race has been cast as a rematch of the 2006 contest between Ehrlich and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.
"It takes him from what I viewed as obscurity to somebody people will pay attention to," said Dave Schwartz, the former Ehrlich fundraiser who runs the Tea Party-affiliated Americans for Prosperity. "Probably a lot of people had no idea who he was."
Murphy, who has run to Ehrlich's right as the former governor has sought to portray himself as a centrist bridge-builder, has hosted a visit from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and says he's planning a television advertising campaign leading up to the Sept. 14 primary. He said Wednesday he has spoken with Palin's staff about a visit to the state later this month.
"The nationals are starting to weigh in," Murphy said. "They are excited to have a credible conservative alternative. They understand the way the tide is shifting."
Others say Murphy remains a dark horse.
"I can't imagine you would find anyone in Maryland outside the Brian Murphy campaign who says he will be the nominee," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
The Ehrlich campaign embraced the endorsement as proof that he's a moderate Republican.
"This is a reaffirmation of Bob Ehrlich's longtime independent streak," spokesman Andy Barth said in a statement.
While Palin has attracted a loyal following among conservative Republicans, she alienates many more voters. Thirty-eight percent say a Palin endorsement would make them less likely to vote for a candidate, according to a poll released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press; only 18 percent say it would make them more likely to support the candidate.
Since Palin rose to national prominence in 2008 as John McCain's running mate, she has endorsed 34 candidates, according to a tally kept by The Washington Post. Her record so far stands at 10-5.
All signs indicate that the state's GOP establishment remains firmly behind Ehrlich. The former state legislator, congressman and governor has been endorsed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell; he took a starring role at a recent party fundraiser that included Romney and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, Ehrlich's former lieutenant governor.
"The primary focus of the Maryland Republican Party is winning the endorsement of Marylanders this November," state Chairwoman Audrey Scott said in statement. "We are pleased that the Republican movement in Maryland is attracting national attention, but ultimately our nominee will be selected by Republicans here in the State."
A recent Gonzales poll showed 84 percent of GOP voters support Ehrlich in a matchup against O'Malley. The same poll showed that Ehrlich would need to pick up some of the 10 percent of Democrats who are undecided in order to win.
Ehrlich said last month that he had not sought Palin's endorsement and that her presence on the campaign trail could be a distraction. "We don't need big names to come in," he said, and explained that most Marylanders already know him.
Palin's success stories include Nikki Haley, an obscure South Carolina lawmaker facing a crowded field for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in that state. With Palin's endorsement, she won the primary and is expected to win the general election and the deeply red state.
Few are expecting a similar outcome for Murphy in Maryland. Washington Post blogger Aaron Blake called the pick Palin's "most surprising endorsement yet"; the University of Virginia's Sabato said that "everybody is shocked."
State GOP operatives, many of whom have ties to Ehrlich, sought to play down Palin's support.
"I don't think outside endorsements mean a whole lot," said Joe Getty, a former Ehrlich policy director. Most voters already have decided whom they plan to support, Getty said. He said Murphy might pick up single-issue "niche voters."
Scott Reed, a Republican strategist and Ehrlich admirer, said he does not think the endorsement will have a significant impact on the race. "It is probably a high-water mark for the Murphy campaign," he said.
But it could force Ehrlich to pay more attention to his conservative supporters at a time when he would prefer to focus on O'Malley.
"If there is chaos in the Republican Party, it is always going to help the Democrat," said Donald Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
O'Malley's campaign manager, Tom Russell, said Palin's endorsement would not affect the Democrat's strategy. "It is more of a Republican primary issue," he said.
In her Facebook message, Palin touted Murphy's opposition to abortion rights, his support of gun ownership and his business experience. She said he would provide "principled and results oriented leadership."
Murphy said SarahPAC, Palin's campaign organization, reached out to him "months ago." He said he heard that she planned to endorse him in the "last few days."
Murphy said he had never actually spoken with Palin but is in touch with staff. "I've just been on their radar screen," Murphy said.
He's hoping that she'll stump for him.
"We're talking about that," Murphy said. "The goal is end of the month, but nothing is set in stone."