Thursday, December 17, 2009

Can Ehrlich Defeat O’Malley? Part Four

Bob Ehrlich became Governor in 2002 partly because of good Republican turnout, support from independent voters and a monetary advantage. But there were other reasons for his win.

Unpopular Incumbent

Parris Glendening, who was about to leave office due to term limits, was lucky to not be on the ballot in 2002 because Ehrlich would have creamed him. Glendening barely defeated Ellen Sauerbrey – a far more conservative Republican than Ehrlich – in a hotly contested election in 1994, had a mostly sour relationship with the press, engaged in a bitter feud with then-Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and dumped his wife to marry a much younger (and pregnant) staffer in his last year in office. A Potomac Inc. tracking poll chronicles Glendening’s free-falling approval rating during his second term, which ultimately bottomed out at 37% approve/48% disapprove in October 2002.

In that same poll, 51% of the respondents agreed with this statement: “Kathleen Kennedy Townsend would just continue the policies of the Glendening administration. It’s time for a change.” Thirty-eight percent disagreed. Glendening was clearly a drag on his Lieutenant Governor’s candidacy against Ehrlich.

Could it happen today?
Governor O’Malley is not as unpopular as Glendening. Here is the history of his approval rating in office from Gonzales.

Interestingly, O’Malley’s low point in March 2008 (37% approve/48% disapprove), which came after the tax-hiking special session, was identical to Glendening’s ratings in October 2002. But O’Malley has recovered since then even though the economy has headed south. Could O’Malley’s approval ratings fall again? Sure, but he is lacking one key component of Glendening’s unpopularity: personal failings. O’Malley has no problems resembling Glendening’s marital drama, his war with Schaefer or his iciness with the press. That will offer him some protection from the negative effects of a bad economy.

Weak Democratic Candidate

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was the weakest Democratic candidate for Governor since George P. Mahoney, a segregationist who lost to Spiro Agnew in 1966. She was born in Connecticut and grew up in Virginia. She moved to Annapolis in 1984 and lost a Congressional race to Helen Delich Bentley two years later by a whopping 18 points. Glendening picked her as his running mate in 1994 to help him raise money against Lieutenant Governor, and former Senate President, Melvin Steinberg in the primary.

Townsend had no base in the state and no successful solo campaign experience when she ran for Governor in 2002. Townsend’s worst mistake was picking Charles Larson, a retired white Admiral who had very recently been a Republican, as her running mate. That decision alienated African Americans and liberals and converted no Republicans or conservative Democrats. A Gonzales poll in October 2002 found that Ehrlich was supported by 25% of Democrats(!), a key factor in Townsend’s four-point defeat caused by her weakness and ineptitude. Glendening piled on after the election, calling Townsend’s effort “one of the worst-run campaigns in the country.”

Could it happen today?
Absolutely not. Even O’Malley’s enemies must concede that he is an able competitor who bears no resemblance to the hapless Townsend. Love him or hate him, he has an interesting duality that serves him well in politics. O’Malley presents a pleasant, charismatic and vigorous face to the public that conceals a shrewd ruthlessness focused on taking down opponents. That formula helped him prosper in the seething hothouse of Maryland politics: the City of Baltimore. O’Malley has won two City Council elections, two mayoral elections, one gubernatorial victory (over Ehrlich) and even served as Barbara Mikulski’s field director in her first U.S. Senate win in 1986.

Additionally, O’Malley is sure to do one thing with gusto that Townsend did ineffectively: go negative. Congressman Ehrlich ran as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate in 2002. The main part of his record that the Democrats attacked at that time was his pro-gun positions, which they unsuccessfully attempted to link to the D.C. sniper shootings. O’Malley has a gigantic treasure trove of opposition research on Ehrlich’s term as Governor bequeathed to him by menacing former Democratic Press Secretary David Paulson. And that stash has only swelled with the addition of last year’s State Police spying scandal, a debacle for which Ehrlich has been unapologetic. Ehrlich is, in turn, bound to go negative against O’Malley, guaranteeing that a rematch will be one of the muddiest races in Maryland’s history.

How would it play out? We’ll predict the outcome in Part Five.