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C. Fraser Smith: If only Ehrlich hadn’t run

OK, it’s a little late, but it would have been better for all concerned if Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had listened to his inner handicapper and stayed out of last year’s race for governor.

Why? Glad you asked.

He wouldn’t have had to endure a 14-percentage point shellacking — which he knew was likely.

His reputation for dirty political tricks would not have grown.

The Republican Party could have concentrated for once on winning the kind of race that would build strength nearer the grass roots. It might have begun to build a “bench” — a field of candidates capable of moving up into the governor’s office or to the U.S. Senate

I’m talking about the county executive’s race in Baltimore County. It may have been more winnable than the race for governor. It’s there in the numbers: Ken Holt took almost 47 percent of the vote in the county while Ehrlich lost there on his home turf.

Finally, Ehrlich’s longtime aide, Paul E. Schurick, would not have been indicted for campaign dirty tricks.

The ‘Schurick Doctrine’

Schurick had urged Ehrlich not to run in 2010. Once overruled, he became the loyal soldier. Now he faces charges of attempting to suppress the black vote with last-minute robocalls suggesting that Gov. Martin O’Malley had won and needed no more support from black Democrats.

The idea, labeled the “Schurick Doctrine” in court papers, suggests that Ehrlich’s man had a deeply cynical view of politics and an insultingly low opinion of the black voter. His accomplice, according to the state prosecutor, was Julius Henson, a well-known political operative.

Ehrlich is said to have been unaware of the whole thing. Perhaps so, but the gambit seems to be part of an Ehrlich pattern. In 2006, homeless men were bused from Philadelphia to Baltimore and Prince George’s County by the Ehrlich campaign to hand out literature suggesting that important black Democrats had endorsed the Republican. It wasn’t so.

Schurick, who had wanted to leave politics behind, now faces a series of difficult decisions in the criminal justice system. Should he choose to be tried in Baltimore where the alleged offenses occurred or move for a different venue? Should he opt to be judged by a jury or a judge?

It is believed he will argue that what he and Henson did was perhaps ill-advised but not criminal — the kind of thing many campaigns do, for better or worse. Whether a jury or a judge will see it that way remains to be seen, of course.

An uphill fight

The allegations in this case resonate against the Ehrlich history of campaigning. After he lost in 2006, Ehrlich said Maryland is just too Democratic for a Republican to win. This is so, in part, because black voters tend to go for the Democrat by huge majorities.

Republicans tend to lose statewide races unless the Democrats are split or nominate a weak candidate or make some other egregious error.

Maryland Republicans like former Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin or U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias won by muting their party affiliation and by making alliances with disgruntled Dems.

Ehrlich bypassed a chance to make alliances with Democrats when he was governor. He was running and serving his party in a different era — an era in which partisan, ideological purity gets in the way of compromise and governing — even running successfully.

Of course, he could not have stayed out of the race for governor last year. His party had no other candidate with winning potential. Something unexpected might have made him competitive.

Any hope he might have had for a role in Republican politics — or as a political rainmaker for some law firm — probably compelled him to stay in the game.

In a perverse political sense, though, he couldn’t lose. Getting shellacked in Maryland is no disgrace for Republicans. Happens all the time. He’s got a job now in Washington.

His friend Schurick, meanwhile, must try to explain decisions the Ehrlich campaign made in the fog of political war.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is [email protected]