Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Maryland Governor Race

Race of the Day

August 22, 2006
77 Days Until Election Day

Maryland Governor

Status: Republican Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (East)

Outlook: Tossup (R)

The race for Governor of Maryland could be one of the nastiest, most personal, and closely contested political battles of 2006. It features a fairly popular incumbent Republican fighting for survival in a traditionally Democrat state against a highly-touted opponent from the other party who has been running strong in the polls thus far, but also has some concerns of his own.

In 2002, Republican Bob Ehrlich became the first GOP Governor elected in Maryland since the 1960s, after dispatching the daughter of Robert Kennedy, in what was seen as a modest upset. Since that time, Ehrlich has feuded with the media and the Democrat controlled legislature, but has remained reasonably popular throughout, at least compared to national Republicans. While recent polls show President Bush’s job approval only in the twenties or thirties in Maryland, Ehrlich is above the 50 percent mark in the same surveys, having rebounded by a few points once the legislative session ended and he began to hit the campaign trail and the television airways.

One challenge for Ehrlich was naming a running mate to replace Lt. Governor Michael Steele, who will be the party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate. In 2002, Steele, was a much selection who helped the ticket score among African-Americans in stronger than expected numbers. Several weeks back, Ehrlich chose to try to shore up another important constituency by naming a female candidate (who also happens to be legally blind) to run with him, but there appear to be signs that the incumbent realizes that the race will largely be a referendum on him and thus the team aspect of the 2002 campaign will not be played up as prominently.

The Democrat candidate will be Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who learned a lesson from the ill-fated 2002 Democrat campaign in Maryland in which a white Republican was selected as the Democrat candidate for Lt. Governor, by picking an African-American political partner. Both the Maryland Gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races are likely to have the participation of Maryland’s sizable African-American community play a large part in the results, and several factors could come into play in that regard.

O’Malley received a huge break a few months back when his sole primary opponent, who had been gaining on him in Democrat primary polls, suddenly dropped out of the race, citing an ongoing battle with depression. Needless to say, this was very good news that the Democrats were to be able to forego an expensive and perhaps bitter primary race that would have lasted through mid-September and that those resources could be reserved for taking on Ehrlich. However, some folks in Maryland believe that the other Democrat, who was from the suburbs, and someone who was seen as somewhat more moderate than big city mayor O’Malley may have been more electable in a general election. While it has been done before, mayors of large urban centers have often had a difficult time being elected Governor of their state. O’Malley will have to be concerned about questions regarding Baltimore’s high murder rate during his term in office, the performance of the public school system, as well as some lingering resentment against him from some African-American political leaders in that part of the state over his initial election as Mayor. Some of those Democrats from Baltimore, including O'Malley's predecesor had endorsed O’Malley’s former primary opponent. In another notable example of less than perfect Democrat unity, William Donald Schaefer, the acerbic octogenarian State Comptroller, who faces his own tough primary battle to keep his job, and who is a former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Governor himself, has said that he will support the Democrat nominee but refuses to endorse O’Malley by name. In the past, he has been critical of O’Malley’s performance as Mayor and is seen as being fairly close to Governor Ehrlich.

Throughout 2006, polling on an O’Malley/Ehrlich matchup has tended to show the Democrat ahead, sometimes by very large margins. The more recent polling though since Ehrlich has started to actively campaign, show him making up some of that ground and running closer to O’Malley. The most recent Rasmussen poll puts the challenger ahead 50-43. One other poll, which Democrats have sought to downplay as being too associated with a Republican firm, actually shows the race in a dead heat. Regardless of the current numbers, conventional wisdom is that Ehrlich has started to improve his political situation and that the race should be very close at the end.

Ehrlich’s deficit in public polls has to also be considered pretty surprising when his fairly strong personal favorability and job performance ratings in those same polls and some others are taken into account. While battles with the Baltimore Sun and the heavily Democrat legislature took its toll during the most contentious part of the session in Annapolis, polls now show Ehrlich’s performance as Governor being approved of by over a majority of Maryland voters. That is typically indicative that an incumbent seeking reelection is a solid favorite for another term. While those numbers are good news for Ehrlich, and may in fact be what saves him in a difficult political environment in the state for Republicans, he has to be able to get past the fact that so many Maryland Democrats and Independents are telling pollsters that even though they approve of his job as Governor, they intend to vote for his opponent. Ehrlich runs significantly stronger within his own party than O’Malley runs within his. However, there are just nowhere near enough Republicans in the state to win the election for the Governor alone.

It is also worth mentioning that the high-profile U.S. Senate contest may have some effect on the race for Governor insofar as turnout among the African-American community is concerned. I will cover that race in more detail tomorrow, but the prospects of both major party nominees for the U.S. Senate being African-American could generate a large turnout among that community which could then see those voters also cast a ballot for O’Malley. In spite of the fact that the Democrat candidate for Senate who is black is considered the easier bet for Republicans to beat, his nomination could have the unintended consequence of working against the interests of Ehrlich’s reelection. If the white candidate wins the Democrat primary for Senate, he may be tougher for the Republicans to beat in that race, but there might be some significant backlash involving African-Americans being upset about the result and either staying at home on Election Day or casting a ballot for the black Republican candidate for that office, and such a thing might help Ehrlich. Ultimately though, both parties will say and probably believe that their candidates are strong enough to win the two races on their own, regardless of the dynamics of the other.

The picture of the Gubernatorial race will probably become clearer after the entire statewide tickets are chosen in the September primary, and voters might be more willing to look beyond Ehrlich’s party label and choose to reward him or punish him based on his performance in office.

This is clearly a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats though and Ehrlich may find himself playing the part of Ann Richards, who despite being a pretty popular Governor of Texas in 1994, went down to defeat at the hands of George W. Bush because the political makeup of the state and the mood of the electorate that year in favor of one political party, were just to much to overcome. To counter this, Ehrlich must be very aggressive in not just relying on what he has already done in office, but in saying what he intends to accomplish in the next four years. He can also hope that Maryland voters will decide that it makes sense to have a moderate Republican as Governor as a balance to the instincts of a very liberal Democrat majority in the state legislature.

Maryland will see at least one tossup race for sure in a very high-profile race that could easily go either way, but it is probably wise to give a slight edge to a well-liked and politically savvy incumbent in the belief that personality and performance can trump party label. If Ehrlich wins this year against the odds, he might be someone who is destined for a great deal of political prominence on the national scale.

Ehrlich campaign link:


2006 Governor races predicted thus far: 4 D, 12 R
Post-election total of Governors predicted thus far: 12 D, 18 R