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Let the games begin — O’Malley vs. Ehrlich

Democrats were exultant last week as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski announced her campaign for a fifth term. Many of the usual Democratic suspects turned out to wish her well in what is expected to be a cakewalk.

Gov. Martin O’Malley watched it all with no hope of a similar coronation — but there was this consolation: Mikulski’s well-oiled machine will run as if she were in dire distress. She’ll mobilize every vote that’s not bolted down.

Most of her votes will be O’Malley votes.

That’s what a quadrennial “coordinated Democratic campaign” is all about. It was one of the factors lining up in O’Malley’s favor this week as he formally launched his re-election campaign against his Republican challenger, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

And there are many such factors:

  • O’Malley has an enormous advantage in campaign funds — $5 million or so at last count to less than $200,000 for Ehrlich. Fundraising may not be as robust for the GOP this time with profits down among those business leaders who supported Ehrlich in the past.
  • O’Malley’s the incumbent. He has the power to please voters and corporate-givers even in the midst of a crushing budget crisis. Contributors will hedge their bets, giving to both sides, but few will wish to offend a sitting governor.
  • Opponents say O’Malley hasn’t sparked a deep commitment among Marylanders, but he’s still something of a rock star. His Irish band, O’Malley’s March, has been less active since he moved to Annapolis, but the image of O’Malley in his sleeveless black T-shirt endures.
  • O’Malley will be running in Maryland, one of the bluest states in the union, a state which had not elected a Republican governor in decades before Ehrlich won over a weak Democratic opponent in 2002.
  • Maryland Republicans have shown little if any organizational prowess. Their party has been torn by internal discord. A recently departed party chairman is backing someone other than Ehrlich in the GOP primary.

What makes Ehrlich run?

Indeed, given all this, the political community has been abuzz with a single question: Why’s Ehrlich running?

At the Shock Trauma Gala in Baltimore last weekend, the former governor pulled another newspaper columnist aside.

I’m not crazy, he said. I’ve got a shot — or words to that effect.

Obviously, he’s been hearing the why-in-the-world-are-you-doing-this question. He knows the negative indicators (see above) as well or better than anyone. He all but ruled himself out after O’Malley beat him last time. He says he’s doing it again because his wife says he has more service to give.

It’s a noble thought. Others should obey the impulse to serve. Our system of government needs campaign-year debates over direction and approach. But nobility is one thing. Reality is another.

Ehrlich steps up as the only GOP candidate with any chance at all this year against O’Malley, a recession-buffeted Democrat who argues that he’s done the best anyone could have done — short of dismantling government or ordering mass teacher and state employee layoffs. Ehrlich will have to say how he would have done better without adding to the unemployment rolls.

Will the Tea Party help?

At his announcement in Fells Point on Tuesday, O’Malley said Marylanders will “have one fundamental question to answer in this campaign — will we move forward, or will we slip back?”

Ehrlich, he said, is the past.

And so the political positioning has begun. O’Malley will not be able to link his opponent with an unpopular-in-Maryland president, George W. Bush, as he did in 2006, but Republicans in Congress — happy to the Party of No — could serve as a Bush surrogate in Democratic Maryland this time around.

Ehrlich will have opportunities to illustrate his arguments for why Maryland needs a more business-friendly government. O’Malley announced his campaign with another call for job creation just as the aerospace giant Northrup Grumman Corp. said it would locate its headquarters — and 300 or so jobs — in Northern Virginia.

Ehrlich pounced.

“The business of creating jobs is … a governing philosophy — one that has been nonexistent in Maryland for four years,” he declared.

Ehrlich could win, of course. But he must have something like a popular movement to get him over the Democrat’s broad strength. That might come from the Tea Partyers, although polling shows they are re-branded Republicans, potentially just as weak at the polls as the GOP.

But if those folks aren’t pumped up and ready to go, Ehrlich’s chances fall toward slim and none.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.


One comment

  1. I think another huge factor in Ehrlich’s potential for victory is who he chooses as a running mate. His choice the last time was clear pandering. He needs a strong running mate with knowledge of the state budget process and state politics.