WASHINGTON - -The second "change" election in a row could add fresh momentum to a heavyweight rematch in Maryland next year between Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Republicans were encouraged by Tuesday's defeat of an incumbent Democratic governor in New Jersey and the election of Virginia's first Republican governor in more than a decade. Voters anxious over a slumping economy told exit pollsters they favored candidates who represented change, a dynamic that favored Barack Obama in 2008.
Ehrlich said that off-year contests can be "predictors" of future contests. He called the victory of Republican Chris Christie, who unseated Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey, a "signpost" on his own path to a possible 2010 campaign.
"It's not dispositive. It's relevant," Ehrlich said in an Election Day interview. As he considers whether to run again, the former governor has been on what he termed a "discussion tour" of the state, including stops in the Baltimore area and the Washington suburbs.
A new statewide poll shows O'Malley leading Ehrlich by 47 percent to 40 percent in a test matchup. The governor's seven-point edge in the survey, by the nonpartisan Clarus Research Group of Washington, is identical to his victory margin in 2006. The poll's margin of error is 3.9 percentage points.
O'Malley, vice chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, had warned going into this week's election that "it couldn't be a tougher time in our economy for these races to be happening than right now."
Incumbents suffer when the economy sours and unemployment is high. That is particularly true for governors, who often get blamed for an economic climate that is largely beyond their control.
O'Malley told reporters in Annapolis that "overall, people are very apprehensive, rightly so, about the economy. And they want their government to work harder to get us out of this recession."
He pointed to Democratic victories in local races, including the Annapolis mayoral contest, as a sign that the party remains strong in Maryland. He also noted that the economy is expected to be far better next year, though some economists predict that jobless rates will remain high through most of 2010.
O'Malley said that "every race is different" when asked what Tuesday's results might mean for his own re-election.
"Maryland is not New Jersey," O'Malley added.
Ehrlich, however, highlighted similarities: a pair of Eastern states with strong labor contingents and big Democratic voter bases that swung solidly behind Obama in 2008.
And yet, Maryland is significantly more Democratic and gave Obama a much bigger landslide than New Jersey. Maryland's Democratic advantage in voter registration is twice as big, and the state has slightly more minority voters, among the most reliable Democratic supporters.
In addition, Corzine is less popular with voters of his state; the New Jersey governor's job approval rating was a miserable 33 percent in a New York Times poll conducted the month before the election. Recent statewide surveys put O'Malley's job approval in the high 40s, unimpressive for an incumbent.
The new Clarus poll of 637 Maryland voters, completed Monday, found that 39 percent of those surveyed want O'Malley to be re-elected, while 48 percent would like someone new to win, evidence of the governor's potential vulnerability.
Since Ehrlich left office, he has kept open the possibility of running for his old job. Any formal announcement of candidacy could be weeks, if not months, away. The next step, he said, would probably be to conduct a new round of statewide polling to gauge his chances against O'Malley, who figures to be well-funded.
"A year ago, I drove back from the Andy Harris campaign nonvictory party with a severe case of depression," Ehrlich recalled. "It's a reminder of how things can change in politics."
Harris, a Baltimore County state legislator already at work on his rematch against freshman Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil, is another Republican likely to find much to like in the 2009 returns.
Kratovil, a member of the centrist Blue Dog faction, must defend his conservative district next year without many of the Obama voters who helped him narrowly defeat Harris. Interviews with voters leaving polling places in Virginia and New Jersey showed that pivotal elements of Obama's coalition - particularly voters under 30 - stayed away.
Kratovil played down the significance of slippage in Democratic turnout by noting that he won election last year in a district that Republican presidential nominee John McCain won by 18 points.
"It's a challenge, not just for me, but everybody in these midterm elections has to be concerned," Kratovil said. The best strategy, he added, is "to do my job and hope that people ultimately will come out and vote for me because they think that I've done what I've said I would do."
According to New Jersey exit polling, the ability to bring change was the most important thing that voters were seeking in their candidate. Almost two in five voters listed that as the decisive quality, and those "change" voters supported Christie, the Republican, by a margin of more than 2-to-1.
At the same time, independent swing voters, who favored Obama in 2008, tilted heavily toward Republican candidates. Independents said the issue of the economy and jobs was the most important in their choice of a candidate.
Analysts said Republican gains in 2009 were likely to boost fundraising and make it easier to recruit top-tier candidates for 2010 races.
Republican National Chairman Michael S. Steele, elected lieutenant governor on the Ehrlich slate in 2002, called New Jersey and Virginia bellwethers and declared that "the Republican renaissance has begun."
He brushed off the biggest blemish for Republicans, a loss of an upstate New York congressional seat that the party had held since the 1800s.
Steele blamed a "flawed process" that let local Republican leaders nominate a moderate woman in the special election. Local and national conservative activists, led by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, generated support for a third-party conservative candidate. He wound up losing by about 4 percentage points to Democrat Bill Owens, after Republican Dierdre Scozzafava dropped out.
Democrats and some independent analysts have pointed to that internecine battle between Republican moderates and conservatives, which closely resembled the Maryland primary split that helped Kratovil gain election last year, as a troublesome development. But Steele dismissed it a "phony fight" of great interest to the news media and a minor problem for his party.
Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.