With O'Malley, Md. bucks the Republican tide

In a year when the smart money was on outsiders and dissatisfaction with government is high, Maryland voters bucked the tide, reelecting Martin O'Malley over former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. by a margin even greater than their first match-up four years ago.

The unlikely outcome is destined to produce its share of crowing (and finger-pointing) by the political establishment. From the outset, Mr. O'Malley seemed to run the more aggressive and effective campaign — launching it earlier, raising more money, sticking to a message and collecting more endorsements.

Mr. Ehrlich's political choices were sometimes baffling. He focused not so much on where he would lead the state but on righting the perceived wrongs of the past — sometimes the distant past. Turning back a one-cent increase in the sales tax as a central campaign theme never struck gold with voters, and the former governor — at heart, a moderate — didn't really connect with the staunchly conservative tea party movement (such as it is in Maryland) that caused so much uproar in neighboring states.

We endorsed Mr. O'Malley and believe he is the better leader to tackle Maryland's problems today. The vision he articulated on economic development, education, the environment, health care and other issues is the right one for Maryland's future. He will face profound challenges during the next four years — not the least of which is balancing the budget during the prolonged economic slowdown — but voters had good reason to put their trust in him. He stuck to the state's most important priorities in his first term and convinced the electorate that he would be a steady, capable leader in his second.

Still, Maryland loses something important in his big victory over Mr. Ehrlich.

Perhaps the most troubling question to emerge from Tuesday's voting is this: If Maryland's most well-known GOP candidate, a popular former governor whose positions are well within the state's mainstream, can't win a statewide race in a time of Republican transcendence on the national stage, can any Republican win a statewide race in Maryland? Mr. Ehrlich said recently that if he loses, he's done with politics. Sadly for the GOP — and for the hope of a viable two-party system in Maryland — his exit from the stage could well spell another generation in the wilderness for the state Republican Party.

Clearly, the odds for the GOP don't look good. Just ask Eric Wargotz and William Henry Campbell. The two Republican candidates, for U.S. Senate and comptroller, respectively, knew they'd lost before the first returns were reported. No Republican even bothered to file as a candidate opposing Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, despite the Democrat's controversial advice that out-of-state gay marriages should be legally recognized in Maryland.

With a 2-1 Democratic advantage in voter registration, it has long been said that the stars have to be aligned for a Republican to win statewide office. Well, the stars don't get more synchronized than they were in 2010, but the results struck a blow against a viable two-party system.

Oddly enough, there might have been a different kind of voter backlash at work. Democratic strongholds of Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City have a high number of Obama supporters who may have wanted to send an anti-tea party message at the ballot box. Mr. Ehrlich never gained much of a foothold in any of those jurisdictions.

But if Republicans think Maryland has abandoned them, they need to think again. It's no secret that the state GOP has tilted to the right politically, much as the national party has since Ronald Reagan took office. In 2002, Mr. Ehrlich embraced what a Republican needed to win in Maryland — preaching fiscal prudence but also advocating for such progressive ideas as spending more on public schools, safe transportation and economic development. It's remarkable that no other GOP candidate has emerged to follow his playbook — and it's one of Mr. Ehrlich's great failings that he was unable to groom potential successors during his term in the governor's mansion.

So while Mr. Ehrlich's loss may be a blow to the GOP's aspirations to represent more than just Maryland's rural districts and conservative suburban neighborhoods, the real problem is the party's message, not its candidates.

Maryland is capable of voting Republican — choosing moderate George H.W. Bush for president in 1988. It is not so different a place than it was in 2002, when Mr. Ehrlich defeated a Kennedy, nor even from the days of Charles McC. Mathias Jr., the three-term U.S. senator who passed away in January. But the right-wing brand of Republicans that dominated Tuesday's election elsewhere? That's not Maryland in the 21st century, and probably won't be for the foreseeable future.

The danger for the party is to look at its single high-profile success this election and conclude that it needs to field more candidates like state Sen. Andy Harris, a far-right conservative who defeated freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil in a rematch of their 2008 race. In a year of national Republican transcendence, Senator Harris was able to rally the GOP base and to win in a congressional district designed specifically to soak up as many of the state's Republican voters as possible, but that doesn't mean that he, or a candidate like him, stands much chance to win office statewide.

Maryland's long-term interests will be ill served if this election causes the state Republican Party to turn away from moderate candidates like Mr. Ehrlich. Despite the final result, we can only hope that he will be followed by a new generation of leaders who can help develop a true marketplace of ideas in Maryland.

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