ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Behold the grudge match between a pair of Maryland governors. The campaign promises to be a doozy.
In one corner: Incumbent Democrat Martin O'Malley, 47, the former mayor of Baltimore. He won by a respectable 117,000 votes (6.5 percentage points) in 2006, when the economy was relatively strong and voters were unhappy with President Bush and the Iraq War. That same anti-Republican tide handed Democrats control of the U.S. House and Senate.
In the other corner: Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., 52, elected in 2002 as the state's first GOP governor in 36 years, only to be knocked off by O'Malley after a single term. Today, with the economy, the Iraq and Afghan wars faltering, President Obama's popularity sinking
, Ehrlich seeks to avenge his loss even as Republicans seem poised to retake Capitol Hill.
Although both men face obscure Sept. 14 primary opponents
, each only has eyes -- and jibes -- for the other. Business investor and first-time Republican candidate Brian Murphy, 33, who won Sarah Palin's endorsement
in July, does not seem to have gained much traction despite daily attacks on O'Malley and Ehrlich as big spenders, and his vocal support of an Arizona-style crackdown on illegal immigration. "I don't follow anything this guy does," Ehrlich told Politics Daily, adding he had no intention of debating Murphy.
With 10 weeks until voting day in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, and the 7.1 percent jobless rate
is well percent below the 9.5 percent national average, the rivals are in a virtual dead heat, according to several polls; a recent Rasmussen
survey puts O'Malley at 45 points to Ehrlich's 44 percent, with 8 percent undecided and 3 percent favoring someone else.
Why the deadlock? "Because we are coming through the toughest economic period in our country's history since the Great Depression, and while Maryland is faring better than many states, we are not immune to the pain," O'Malley said Wednesday in an interview. Since taking office and facing a $1.7 billion Ehrlich-era deficit, he and the Democratic-controlled legislature were forced to take drastic measures, he said. "We made $5.6 billion in spending cuts in four years. We reduced the size of our state government per capita so that it is smaller than it was in 1973." In 2007 they raised the sales tax from five to six cents, prompting Ehrlich's current vow to repeal that pesky penny if elected.
Ehrlich believes voters are fed up with the political establishment, never mind that his own name starts with the phrase "former governor."
"When I left office, Maryland was the bluest of blue states. I'd go to Republican meetings and there might be 10 or 20 people there," he said at a neighbor's recent birthday party in Annapolis. "But then things began to change and there would be 200 or 300 people turning out. There is a real shift going on here."
Thus Bob Ehrlich decided to try to make state history by reclaiming his old job. He announced his move against O'Malley in April. Today he's got $2.1 million in the bank. O'Malley has $6.7 million, according to the latest reports
, filed in mid-August. Ehrlich, however, claims many more donors
writing one- and two-digit checks, indicating what the challenger calls an energized grass-roots base. High statewide name recognition and solid polling numbers have allowed him to delay an expensive TV ad blitz until September, despite O'Malley's heavy presence on the airwaves.
Their dueling campaign themes of jobs, taxes and spending were much in evidence last weekend in the popular Atlantic resort town of Ocean City, where the non-partisan Maryland Association of Counties
held its annual meeting. Standing on the beach, Ehrlich pledged to restore $60 million of the $240 million in road maintenance funds O'Malley diverted to the cash-strapped treasury, which faces an estimated $1.5 billion shortfall in the next fiscal year.
"I fully recognize the budget crises facing our state, yet I also recognize we will not get our economy moving again with residents traveling on unsafe roads," Ehrlich said, without explaining how he would finance it. Rather, he said he hoped to put back the funds over four years because "We live in the land of the doable. . . . We like to speak the truth."
O'Malley was having none of it in his address to the group. Without naming Ehrlich, he warned county leaders, who are eager to reclaim the road money, to beware of candidates who "tell people we can eat cake and lose weight."
O'Malley campaign manager Tom Russell was far less subtle, accusing Ehrlich in the Washington Post.
of fiscal irresponsibility. "In recent months, Ehrlich has proposed to increase transportation aid, double the number of charter schools, cut the sales tax by 1 cent, rebuild the Dover bridge, and stop furlough days for state employees, all without offering any insight as to how he would fund any of that through spending cuts or more of his tax increase."
Things will only get testier between the two men, who openly dislike each other. Ehrlich was known to use his Saturday morning radio show, co-hosted by wife Kendel, to needle his old adversary. Though he announced his candidacy in April, Erhlich refused to step down from the program -- skirting equal-time rules
-- until formally filing the paperwork in early July. Kendel continues to host the show, broadcast on 50,000-watt WBAL.
Five years ago, before their first head-to-head contest, Ehrlich dissed O'Malley as a "whiner"
for complaining that the Ehrlich campaign had been spreading rumors about O'Malley's marriage. "Whining is not a leadership style," Ehrlich declared. "I don't like whiners. I've never associated with whiners." An Ehrlich aide was subsequently fired over the matter.
This summer O'Malley launched a TV attack ad accusing Ehrlich, then a lawyer in Baltimore for a North Carolina firm, of lobbying for special interests. They included Big Oil even as the BP well was gushing millions of barrels of sludge into the Gulf of Mexico. O'Malley later conceded that linking Ehrlich to the spill was a stretch, but he defended his aggressive tone to Washingtonian magazine. "If he chooses to hide behind radio-show screeners and falsehoods and the mask of his secret government affairs practice, then we must go after that as best we can."
Asked this week if he likes Ehrlich, O'Malley paused before answering, "He's always fouling and he's always crying foul. Hey, that's a good line. I should use that."
That interview came after a high-wattage event at the U.S. Naval Academy, the sort only an incumbent can pull off: O'Malley joined Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson and commanders from many of the 68 bases in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to discuss how the military can help the state clean up and protect Maryland's vital waterway and eco-systems. As multiple cameras rolled, O'Malley, Mabus and Jackson addressed conference attendees, then took media questions at the water's edge before inspecting a Naval Academy oyster cultivation project.
By contrast, Ehrlich spent the day at Kaufman's Tavern in Gambrills chewing over "Maryland's weak economy and high taxes" with voters. He has held dozens of such meetings, often with small business owners frustrated by bureaucracy, high licensing fees and taxes that Ehrlich says cost the state valuable jobs. He tells voters he is putting their complaints and his solutions in a "November 3 file" so he can begin work immediately after the election.
At a recent round-table at the Smokin' Hot Bar and Grill in Glenwood, he blasted the current "very hostile" business climate that he said took Northrop Grumman to neighboring lower-taxed Virginia and that draws countless shoppers to sales-tax-free Delaware. From the back of the room, Democratic Party communications director Isaac Salazar interrupted Ehrlich to point out that he raised some of the very fees and taxes he was now criticizing. Salazar was silenced by Ehrlich minions, and the candidate later dismissed the diversion as "a breach of etiquette, a no-class move."
So far Ehrlich and O'Malley have agreed to one debate, Oct. 29, on an all-news radio station. Ehrlich has yet to hit the airwaves with ads, although his signs are all over the state. The governor, on he other hand, has run television and radio spots for months, owing to the size of his war chest.
The danger with delayed advertising is that "Ehrlich can be swamped by O'Malley ads," said Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University. "O'Malley is trying to imprint himself in voters' minds, and because he has so much more money he's continuing to hammer his message home."
If there is an intangible in this race, it's personality. "I think with O'Malley there is a kind of likability problem," said SpliceToday blogger Frank de Filippo, who has covered Maryland politics for more than a half-century and worked for Democratic Gov. Marvin Mandel in the 1970s. "He comes off as a kind of smart-ass that people don't relate to."
"Bottom, bottom line is he's just a little too cocky," mused a longtime Democratic supporter.
Ehrlich, on the other hand, "is a schmoozer, he's very personable. He represents a more moderate conservatism, and that is what's electable in Maryland," said attorney Joan Becker, who chairs the state Republican Central Committee. "He appeals to a lot of groups who have organized for him: Truckers for Ehrlich, Nurses for Ehrlich. We even have Bunko Moms for Ehrlich, where a bunch of us sit around and play this dice game and talk politics."
Despite the deadlock, de Filippo predicts the polls will break O'Malley's way soon. "Twenty-six percent of the Maryland workforce is employed on some level for the federal, state and local government, so they do not see government as the problem," he said. "There are 450,000 union members and a 33 percent black population. When you add all that up it says Democrat to me."