O'Malley rides a Democratic wave

On the electoral map, Maryland just got bluer and Gov. Martin O'Malley's future got brighter.

Riding the wave of excitement over Barack Obama's historic presidential bid and voter discontent over the economy, the Democratic Party enlisted more than 225,000 new voters for this election and claimed victories that extended its powerful base.

O'Malley wagered political capital on a slot-machine referendum and won after his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., failed to get a slots plan through the Democrat-controlled legislature.

The electorate approved early voting, a proposal that's widely seen to benefit Democrats. And the party's candidate in the 1st Congressional District, drawn to give an advantage to Republicans, faces a nail-biter that won't be decided until officials count absentee and provisional ballots.

Despite those victories, Democrats face pitfalls ahead. Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat who split from the administration to oppose slots, pledged yesterday to "fight to make sure Maryland taxpayers don't get fleeced if this bad slots plan falls flat." And party leaders on the national and state level must address the economy to ensure they don't face the same backlash Republicans suffered.

"The mood is basically euphoria on the part of the Democrats," said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a stalwart in the state Democratic machine. "Now they are going to have to work to keep that sense that they have the ability to govern and move the state and nation forward. And if they don't, we could be in a pickle in two years."

In many ways, O'Malley solidified his position as he faces re-election in 2010. The number of newly registered Democrats this year amounts to roughly twice the number of voters that gave O'Malley his margin of victory over Ehrlich in 2006. While many registered primarily for the presidential race, political operatives hope they stick with the party and give O'Malley a cushion.

Also, his main political opponents, Franchot and Ehrlich, were on the losing side of the statewide ballot proposal to legalize slots at five locations, a proposal for which O'Malley made a public push. Ehrlich also has opposed early voting, the other ballot proposal O'Malley backed.

Yesterday O'Malley appeared to want to move on from slots, an issue that has consumed Annapolis for years: "Now that this pebble has been removed from our shoe of public discourse, the state can "focus on education and affordable college and health care and making our government work again."

Still, the stakes are high for slots to get running smoothly and quickly. To balance the budget in the coming years, O'Malley needs the estimated $600 million in revenue and an economic recovery to bolster tax revenues. Otherwise, he might be forced to make budget cuts or raise taxes.

"It puts O'Malley in an ironic situation because they have over-promised so extensively that it's going to be difficult to deliver even a fraction of that," said Aaron Meisner of grass-roots Stop Slots Maryland. "Think of how this is going to play for people who are gunning for him or the governor's office."

Ehrlich, who returned to law practice but hosts a radio show, has acknowledged that it would be difficult for a Republican to win in Maryland, where they are outnumbered 2-to-1. But he has not ruled out another run. "If there is an opportunity to run and improve Maryland's future, then he would run," spokesman Henry Fawell said. "If not, then he won't."

Ehrlich recently came out against the slots referendum as flawed, and he twice vetoed early voting bills while in office, arguing that it invited fraud and was a ploy to drum up Democratic turnout.

But some Republicans doubted voters would view the slots victory as an Ehrlich loss, and they said the issue splintered Democrats because Franchot wasn't the only opponent in the party. The Maryland Democratic Party didn't take an official stance on the issue because of strong feelings on both sides.

Kevin Igoe, a Republican strategist, said the main driver of his party's chances in 2010 is the national political climate, not the slots vote, which he called nonpartisan. "All you can do is keep your options open and play the hand you're dealt with if you decide to play," Igoe said. "Ehrlich is a smart politician. He's keeping his options open."

One factor that Ehrlich and other Republicans will look at is the U.S. House race between Republican state Sen. Andy Harris and Frank Kratovil, the Democratic state's attorney for Queen Anne's County. It would be a blow to Ehrlich - who endorsed Harris and campaigned extensively with him - for Republicans to lose the seat they have long held.

"If Kratovil could win, that would be the big news for the Democrats," said Harry Basehart, professor emeritus of political science at Salisbury University.

As for Franchot, he has insisted that he doesn't plan to run for governor in the next election, but he often pits himself against O'Malley on issues, raising suspicions among Annapolis insiders that he does have gubernatorial aspirations.

The state's chief tax collector exhibited an independent streak as the frontman in the anti-slots movement, a quality that could appeal to some voters. He also made connections in the African-American community by siding with black churches on the gambling issue and endorsing Obama in the primary before O'Malley did. Initially O'Malley backed Hillary Clinton.

But Franchot also angered many in the Democratic establishment that supports candidates with an extensive get-out-the-vote operation and fundraising apparatus. And O'Malley has made his own inroads with black churches, partly by implementing programs to address rising home foreclosures.

Baltimore Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.