Time may be ripe in Md. after GOP victories elsewhere, strategists say

Baltimore Sun

Just two Republicans have been elected governor of heavily Democratic Maryland in the past four decades, but state political strategists say the time has never been better for another victory.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who after one term lost to Martin O'Malley in 2006, has been contemplating a rematch this fall, and his advisers say this week's upset victory by a Republican Senate candidate in heavily Democratic Massachusetts provides another nudge.

"He is processing in his mind as to whether to run, and this is one more piece of evidence that might lead him in that direction," said Dick Hug, a longtime Ehrlich ally and lead fundraiser.

Wins by Republican gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey last fall encouraged Ehrlich, Hug said, but "Massachusetts is sort of the icing on the cake. Democrats need to wake up and listen to the American people."

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the Massachusetts election means that Maryland's former governor "can enthusiastically check one more box off his decision-making process. All of these little pieces of the puzzle are taken into consideration."

Ehrlich, 52, a former congressman with a radio talk show, has by far the most name recognition of any Republican in Maryland. But a second straight loss in the governor's race could doom him politically, many analysts say. He said recently that he expects to reach a decision about whether to run "within a month or two."

A statewide survey by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies released this week shows Ehrlich trailing O'Malley by 9 percentage points, 48 percent to 39 percent. Campaign reports for 2009, due at midnight this morning, will show that Ehrlich has about $142,000 in his political account, compared with O'Malley's $5.7 million.

Hug said Ehrlich's fundraising numbers "speak for themselves. We are not in that mode."

O'Malley, like all state lawmakers, cannot accept campaign contributions during the 90-day legislative session that began last week, giving any challengers time to catch up. Ehrlich has said he is confident that he would be able to raise about $10 million for the race if he enters it.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a fundraising giant for Maryland Democrats, said his party must work hard in the face of an angry public that seems to be turning on incumbents. All 188 legislative seats are up for election this fall.

"Everybody needs to pay attention to what happened in Massachusetts," Miller said. "People are lashing out. It's a national great recession, and people are frustrated."

Still, he said, Ehrlich would face long odds in a rematch against O'Malley. Miller said Ehrlich, "a likable guy," was "outworked in the last election, and he'll be outworked again if he chooses to run."

Miller added that he is skeptical of an Ehrlich candidacy: "Nobody wants to lose twice in a row."

Maryland Republicans said they felt energized by the outcome of the special election in Massachusetts to fill the seat of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The victor, Scott Brown, had been a little-known state senator who overcame a huge deficit to beat Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic nominee.

Anthony J. O'Donnell, minority leader in Maryland's House of Delegates, said the Brown victory has been "a matter of discussion in the halls all day."

Dave Schwartz, the Maryland director for the conservative grass-roots group Americans for Prosperity, said Brown's victory has emboldened many of his 9,000 statewide members. "If you can win in Massachusetts as a fiscal conservative, you can win anywhere," he said.

Schwartz said Maryland shares demographic similarities with Massachusetts, including strong pockets of white, working-class voters who are fiscally prudent and socially conservative. And by some measures, O'Donnell said, Maryland is more Republican than Massachusetts. Republican lawmakers make up 27 percent of the House and 30 percent of the Senate in Maryland, he said, while in Massachusetts the party controls 10 percent of the House seats and about 12 percent in the Senate.

Though some drew parallels between the Bay State and the Old Line State, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, who was Ehrlich's lieutenant governor, said, "Every place is different. You just can't stop and think, 'Well, OK, now we'll win in Maryland, we'll win Delaware and we'll win everywhere in the country because we won in Massachusetts,' " Steele told WBAL radio Wednesday morning.

Both states are heavily Democratic and favored Barack Obama by nearly identical margins in 2008. But Massachusetts has a far higher number of registered independents and has had a steady stream of Republican governors in recent years. By contrast, before Ehrlich was elected in 2002, the last Republican governor of Maryland was Spiro T. Agnew, elected in 1967.

James G. Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said Brown's win should, at the least, foster more "credible candidates" among Republicans seeking office in Maryland. "What it says to me is that this is an opportune time for Republicans," he said. "Under ordinary circumstances, Republicans don't stand a chance in Maryland, and that obviously discourages high-quality candidates. Now that prospects are less dim, that could change."

Lawrence Hogan, an Ehrlich Cabinet member who said he plans to run for governor if his former boss decides against it, said Brown's win was "very encouraging and exciting."

"Maryland is not immune to the winds of change that blew through Massachusetts," he said.

Hogan said he lent his campaign account $325,000 and hasn't done any fundraising yet as he "waits on the launchpad" for Ehrlich to make a decision.

Ehrlich has been testing the waters for months, and Steven Crim, a Republican consultant working for Hogan, said those waters have "never been warmer."

"Any Republican challenging the status quo, whether it's Ehrlich or Hogan, it looks good for either one of them," Crim said.

Hogan and Crim acknowledged that the longer Ehrlich waits to decide, the more of a disadvantage other Republican gubernatorial candidates will find themselves in if he decides not to run. Hogan said he won't begin any major fundraising until he knows Ehrlich's plans.

"I have encouraged Governor Ehrlich to make a decision sooner rather than later," Hogan said. "He's got his own time frame, and he's not going to decide based on my time frame. He said he hasn't reached that point, and I respect that. But it has affected us."

For Ehrlich, strategists said, a delay could provide benefits. Shorter campaigns cost less money, and he doesn't need time to build name recognition. "Indecision does not harm him at all," Crim said. "People are champing at the bit for him to announce, but he has the luxury of waiting - an organizational structure already in place, finances, name recognition."

Besides, Crim said, as Brown's win proves, "If you have the right message and enthusiasm, it doesn't take long at all."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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