From the Baltimore Sun


For Ehrlich, 2002 strategy failed to work a second time

By Andrew A. Green
Sun reporter

November 9, 2006

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. tried to run the same race this year that he did in 2002.

He announced his campaign in the same place - the front steps of his parents' Arbutus rowhouse - with the same people. The same GOP star, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, came in to fire up the troops on the same Sunday before the election. He held his election night party in the same ballroom of the same Baltimore hotel.

And the campaign strategy was more or less the same: Try to convince voters that his opponent was unqualified to lead the state and that Ehrlich would be a suitable moderate alternative that crossover Democrats and independents could support.

But 2006 was not 2002.

In Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the governor faced an opponent who was, by all accounts, a stronger candidate than Ehrlich's 2002 foe, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. And Ehrlich found himself running in the worst environment for Republicans in decades in a state that leans heavily Democratic.

As Republicans see it, Ehrlich had an impossible task.

"This is just a blue state getting bluer on Election Day," said Kevin Igoe, a Maryland Republican consultant. "There's just no way to separate this from the national mood. I don't think there is anything strategically or tactically that the Ehrlich campaign ... could have done differently to have really had much effect on those votes."

Several top Democrats said national trends do not tell the whole story. Twenty-six incumbent governors ran for re-election this year, and Ehrlich was the only one who lost. Twelve of them were Republicans, including some in Democratic states such as California, Rhode Island and Hawaii.

Ehrlich's record over the past four years alienated many potential allies, his critics say.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who was one of the governor's best friends in the General Assembly when they served together from 1986 to 1994 but who became an opponent in the past four years over issues such as slot machine gambling, said Ehrlich had the opportunity to build allegiances and expand his base but turned away from them.

Rather than going to Annapolis looking for ways to make government work, Ehrlich arrived with a Capitol Hill mentality of exploiting wedge issues, Busch said.

The governor used a medical malpractice crisis, a bill to force Wal-Mart to pay more for employee health care and a sharp rise in electricity rates to make political points instead of progress, the speaker said.

"If Governor Ehrlich had come in here ... and reached across the aisle and created compromises, we would have accomplished much more, and he would have had a much more favorable opportunity to be re-elected," Busch said.

Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said the national mood was partly responsible for the heavy turnout for O'Malley there. But so, too, was Ehrlich's failure to win over many new voters, he said.

Ehrlich lost badly in Prince George's last time. In this election, he predicted that he would do better because he had paid close attention to the county. Showing up frequently for church services and other visits wasn't enough, Ivey said.

"You've got to deliver, too, and I think the general sense was that there wasn't enough responsiveness to things that were concerning regular people in their everyday lives," Ivey said. "Raising tuition for College Park, the University of Maryland, was a very bad idea."

In conceding defeat yesterday, Ehrlich did not seek to explain or excuse his performance. He congratulated O'Malley, thanked his supporters and disappeared from public view.

Exit polling indicated that national issues strongly affected voters' motivations in ways that did not benefit the governor.

Sixty percent of voters surveyed in the exit polls said they disapproved of Bush's job performance, and that group supported O'Malley 78 percent to 21 percent.

More than 60 percent said the Iraq war was important in determining how they voted, and among that group, O'Malley beat Ehrlich 61 percent to 39 percent.

That made for a poisonous atmosphere for any Republican, even Ehrlich, whose job approval ratings were above 50 percent for his entire term.

"When we were phone banking, we had Republicans tell us they weren't going to vote for any Republican," said Carol L. Hirschburg, a GOP strategist from Owings Mills. "Not the governor specifically, but they were angry at the Republican Congress, and some were angry at President Bush, and although I hate to use this word, the governor was a victim of it."

The O'Malley campaign effectively seized on those concerns, basing his campaign on pocketbook issues heavily affecting the middle class, such as college tuition. He used them to appeal to voters in the suburbs beyond Democrats' traditional base.

The mayor crisscrossed the state with a hectic schedule of public events, including policy speeches and kitchen table meetings designed to show that he was attuned to the needs of working families.

The campaign appeared to appeal to women in particular. According to exit polls, O'Malley benefited from a 20-point gender gap, besting Ehrlich 60 percent to 40 percent among female voters.

Ehrlich, who held relatively few campaign events, also focused his strategy on suburban voters, who propelled him to victory in 2002. He pumped millions into a television advertising campaign aimed at convincing voters in the counties around Baltimore that O'Malley had bungled the management of the city schools and police.

O'Malley was able to counter the thrust by relying on relationships with local officials, a luxury Ehrlich didn't have because of the paucity of Republicans in lower offices and because he had grappled with many of them, particularly Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. That suburban county was pivotal in the governor's race, as it was four years ago.

Though a resident of Baltimore County, Townsend was never able to count on visible support from elected Democrats there.

Toward the end of the campaign, when internal Democratic polls showed Ehrlich gaining some ground in Baltimore County, Smith aired radio ads excoriating Ehrlich for putting politics above the interest of his home county. Smith said in the ads that Ehrlich hadn't returned his phone calls in three years.

O'Malley attributed his margin of victory, especially in Baltimore County, to a highly organized, precinct-by-precinct grassroots effort to get voters to the polls in Ehrlich's home county

"From the beginning we knew that Baltimore County was going to be the battleground area," O'Malley said yesterday. "We had precinct captains and leaders throughout the county."

It all made a difference. Ehrlich didn't win in the counties that make up his base by nearly as much as he did four years ago. His margin in Baltimore County alone dropped by more than 60,000 votes. The latest returns have O'Malley slightly ahead there, though no absentee ballots have been counted yet.

O'Malley didn't cede rural areas to Ehrlich, either. In his last week on the campaign trail, he visited Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, hoping to capitalize on discontent with some of the governor's policies - notably, the management of prisons - and cut into Ehrlich's most loyal base of support.

O'Malley won Charles County, a jurisdiction that has seen an influx of people from the Washington area, and cut into Ehrlich's 2002 margins in every other rural county.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican, said turnout among rural conservatives was down because of disaffection with national politics. But he said O'Malley did a much better job than Townsend at trying to chip away at Ehrlich's strength in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

"Clearly, they made a wise strategic decision not to write off the rural areas of the state," Shank said.
Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.
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