Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How O’Malley Should Handle George Owings

Last week, when former Delegate and Ehrlich Cabinet Member George Owings announced his Democratic primary challenge to Governor O’Malley, Maryland Democratic Party Chair Susan Turnbull responded with thumping criticism on the party’s blog. While we understand that the party apparatus often stands unofficially behind its incumbents, we believe that the Governor’s team is making a mistake by going negative against Owings so early.

George Owings is a conservative Democrat without a doubt. For many years, he represented a Delegate district that was part of Senate President Mike Miller’s Senate district (27) in Calvert County. During his time in the legislature, Owings sponsored a constitutional amendment to protect “the right to keep and bear arms,” a bill to allow individuals who complete safety programs to ride motorcycles without helmets, a bill to partially privatize transportation projects, five bills that would have eliminated the requirement for a “good and substantial reason for a handgun permit,” a bill prohibiting partial birth abortions, two bills prohibiting the use of fetal tissue for research, a bill granting an income tax credit for possession of a “gun safe” and the 1999 electricity deregulation law that has been heavily criticized ever since its passage. This is not the kind of record that will be happily received by liberal Democratic primary voters in Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties and it presents a tempting target to the Governor’s political team.

But the Governor must keep in mind Owings’ two advantages.

1. Media Attention
With Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith deciding against a run for Comptroller, the race for Governor will be the only statewide contest worth covering this spring and summer. Whether the media believes Owings is competitive or not, they will have little choice but to give him the free media exposure every underfunded candidate needs.

2. Personality
Every one of our sources who knows Owings says the same thing: regardless of his political views, they like him personally. “He’s a good old boy,” says one informant. “I disagree with him on almost everything but I love the guy.” Owings has been in politics longer than the incumbent Governor and understands how to work the press. He will be sure to make himself accessible, quotable and interesting – all things that the press craves.

The above two factors mean that if O’Malley and/or his surrogates respond to Owings too much, they will draw more attention to the challenger and get him more coverage than he would otherwise receive. Coverage of challengers is the last thing that any incumbent wants. A tit-for-tat with O’Malley or his supporters is exactly what Owings wants.

There is one additional problem with taking on Owings directly. While his record will not serve him well in a statewide Democratic primary, it may be closer to the views of many conservative Democrats and independents than is the Governor’s record. Those two groups will determine whether former Governor Bob Ehrlich or any other Republican has any shot at defeating O’Malley. If excessive criticism of Owings as too conservative makes O’Malley seem too liberal, the Republican nominee will benefit. None of this helps the Governor in the critical swing jurisdictions of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford Counties, which together decided the last two elections.

So Martin O’Malley’s team has little choice but to tout any positive aspects of his record and ignore George Owings for the moment. Direct engagement just draws more attention to the challenger and sets up a more difficult general election campaign in the fall.