As Gov. Martin O'Malley turns over the reins of power Wednesday to a leader who won by criticizing his tenure, the big question for the outgoing governor is whether his political career will continue.
In the short term, O'Malley will deliver paid speeches, seek a publisher for his book and become a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University's Carey Business School – all part of the governor's plan "to get my family back home and secure."
O'Malley has said he will decide by spring about whether to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. He offers little insight into the factors he's weighing.
"My wife and I will make a decision on that when the time is right," O'Malley said. "That's all I need to say about that."
If he decides to run, political analysts say the governor will need to substantially increase his presence in early primary states, bolster his fundraising and draw sharper contrasts with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who polls show would be the overwhelming front-runner if she enters the race.
O'Malley will need to pen op-eds in New Hampshire and Iowa newspapers, meet with lawmakers and party officials in far corners of those states, and build a campaign apparatus essentially from scratch. It also wouldn't hurt, some said, if he published that book introducing himself to voters outside of Maryland.
The governor said in an interview this week he continues to meet with policy experts "all the time" to form the basis of such a run, and has dedicated a lot of time to writing – both on his new blog and on a manuscript about his years in Baltimore. O'Malley, an attorney, has no plans to join a law firm.
He'll need to explain why voters rejected his preferred successor in November, handing control of the governor's mansion to a Republican in one the nation's biggest political upsets.
He's confident his tenure as governor resonates outside the state. "As I go around the country, people have been impressed by the story of Maryland," he said.
Before he decides whether to commit to the grueling schedule of a presidential bid, O'Malley, a father of four with two sons still in school, plans to move to Baltimore's Homeland neighborhood with his wife, Judge Katie O'Malley.
"The Iowa caucus is a long, hard slog of small, town-hall meetings throughout the state," said Grant Woodard, an Iowa political operative who ran Democrat Jack Hatch's unsuccessful campaign for governor last year. "The calculation anyone has to make is whether that makes sense for them."
O'Malley, who will turn 52 Sunday, is widely credited with pulling Annapolis out of the gridlock that characterized former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration and restoring Maryland as a national leader on liberal policy. He secured the legalization of same-sex marriage, tighter gun controls, a repeal of the death penalty and a series of policies to ease life for immigrants in the country illegally.
The governor thinks he's "brought forward in our state – ahead of other states – a new way of governing" that relies on publicly setting goals and using data and science to monitor them, a concept he says resonates with people under 40.
He signaled that if he runs for president he would offer U.S. voters the statistics-driven governing style he outlined for Baltimore voters in 1999 and Maryland voters in 2006.
That approach – embodied in his StateStat program – is not ideological or bureaucratic, in his view. "It's fundamentally entrepreneurial. It's collaborative. It's relentlessly interactive," he said.
Matthew Gallagher, the governor's former chief of staff who helped O'Malley develop CitiStat while in Baltimore, said O'Malley deserves credit for establishing enough leadership to pass the social legislation that has come to define the record he is pitching.
"It took literally years for him to build the credibility, to have the relationships in place that he was able to move forward on some of those things," Gallagher said.
O'Malley describes his enduring mark on the state as a manager-in-chief. On Friday, in his final meeting with reporters, he distributed a detailed proposal on how Gov.-elect Larry Hogan should close the estimated $750 million shortfall O'Malley will leave behind.
Boxed in by a soft economy and a troubled state budget during his two terms, O'Malley raised taxes – a lot of them. He increased the income tax on top earners, the sales tax, the cigarette tax and the gas tax, among others. The governor has explained those increases to out-of-state audiences by noting how the revenue was used: to bolster key state services such as public schools and transportation.
Outside Maryland, he is sure to face criticism for the levies nonetheless, particularly because Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown lost a bid to succeed him in part because of voter discontent over taxes.
O'Malley dismisses criticism that the election was a referendum on his economic policies. He notes that he ran for re-election in 2010 shortly after raising taxes, when the economy was in a worse place, and nonetheless persuaded voters he was the right choice for another four years.
"When unemployment was twice as high, and foreclosures were three times as high, I was re-elected with a 14-point margin," O'Malley said. "The lieutenant governor had to make tactical decisions in his campaign, and every candidate has to do that. Those decisions were his to make."
Keeping his name in the mix for 2016 in coming months will be complicated by several factors. For starters, O'Malley will no longer hold public office. Many potential Republican contenders – former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, among them – have long moved on from office, but most start with a higher name recognition than O'Malley.
Polls have never shown O'Malley with much national support. A CNN/ORC poll late last year found 1 percent of respondents backing him compared with 66 percent for Clinton, 9 percent for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and 8 percent for Vice President Joe Biden. Nearly eight in ten Democratic caucus voters in Iowa didn't have an opinion of O'Malley in a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg News poll conducted in October.
Chet Culver, a Democrat, Iowa governor from 2007 to 2011, suggested that could change once voters take a closer look at O'Malley.
"To his credit, he really accomplished a wide range of initiatives. And I think people around the country, if they haven't already, certainly will take note of that record," he said.
While leaving the governor's office means losing a megaphone, it could give O'Malley more time to focus on a presidential campaign. "Not being in office can free you from certain responsibilities and demands," said Kathy Sullivan, a former Democratic Party chairwoman in New Hampshire. "If he continues to come to our state, to meet folks…there will certainly be opportunities for him."
O'Malley became a regular presence on the Sunday political talk shows as a surrogate for President Barack Obama's reelection in 2012, though those appearances fell off dramatically once the election was over. The governor traveled extensively ahead of last fall's midterm elections – including frequent trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – but that travel also has mostly subsided.
Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the non-partisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, said it will probably be harder for O'Malley to capture the kind of national attention he has become accustomed to now that he's leaving the State House.
But, Gonzales added, there's an obvious way for him to address that.
"The easiest way to get attention is to run against Clinton," Gonzales said. "Don't just run for the Democratic nomination, but take Secretary Clinton head on. Don't be shy about it. I think that would get him the level of attention he probably wants."
O'Malley said Friday his decision would not be affected by whether Clinton or anyone else joined the race.
Launching a full-throated campaign against Clinton would open O'Malley up to return fire. In addition to taxes, O'Malley is vulnerable to criticism over his handling of the state's health insurance exchange – which, though since repaired, failed miserably during its launch in 2013 – and rampant corruption within Baltimore's state-run jail.
Harry Bookey, a Des Moines real estate developer who hosted O'Malley at his home for a fundraiser earlier this year, said the political dynamic of the race at this point makes it difficult to predict the governor's next best move. Obama and Gary Hart – for whom O'Malley worked in Iowa – blanketed the state during their respective races, Bookey said.
"It's a good strategy for people who aren't favorite candidates," he said. "On the other hand, we've never had a situation like this where we have a potential candidate in Clinton who is in such a strong position."
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.