Good news for O’Malley: Democrats fare better in governor races than in 2010

November 6, 2011

Whatever else one might think of Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s outspoken year as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, this much almost certainly will be true after Tuesday:

The bleeding has stopped.

The last two gubernatorial races to be decided this year are on the ballot Tuesday, and unless recent polling is wildly off, the Democratic incumbent is likely to win comfortably in Kentucky, and the Republican nominee in Mississippi is expected to coast.

For the year, that will mean Democrats and Republicans fought to a 2-to-2 draw across the nation.

“Given the [Democratic] losses in 2010, they ought to happy with where they are,” said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks governor’s races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “They’ve done pretty well.”

O’Malley ascended to the helm of the DGA in December, a month after his party experienced a net loss of five governorships during a busier election year — and one his party was eager to move beyond.

In the months since, O’Malley has sought to transform the DGA chairmanship, with far sharper rhetoric aimed at Republicans, and he has seen his national profile rise as well. On Sunday morning on CNN, during his latest talk show appearance, O’Malley sidestepped a question about whether he is eyeing national office in 2016.

Last month, Democrats claimed a squeaker of a win by West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) in a special election, and Republicans cheered Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) trouncing of nine challengers.

In addition to the two races Tuesday that will round out O’Malley’s record as chairman, both parties are closely watching a high-profile ballot measure in Ohio. The involvement of the DGA — whose primary mission is to raise money and help Democrats get elected — is emblematic of O’Malley’s more aggressive approach.

The referendum could repeal a bill championed by Gov. John Kasich (R) that limits collective bargaining for public employees. Kasich has argued that it would help local governments control their expenses.

The DGA, still smarting over Kasich’s defeat last year of then-Gov. Ted Strickland (D), announced a $150,000 contribution late last month to the union-backed “We Are Ohio” coalition leading the repeal effort.

In the past, the DGA has invested sparingly in ballot measures. But O’Malley said in an interview that he considered the Ohio measure “union bashing” and called Kasich “one of the glaring examples of those newer tea paryting, over-reaching ideological governors.”

O’Malley has used similar rhetoric in travels around the country this year, most frequently targeting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) as an example of a wrongheaded Republican.

A letter that accompanied the donation in Ohio said that “Governor Martin O’Malley and his colleagues in the DGA have always appreciated the contributions that the men and women of organized labor have made to our nation” and called the referendum “ground zero in the fight to protect the rights of workers.”

It was signed by Colm O’Comartun, a former senior O’Malley aide in Maryland who is executive director of the DGA.

Polling has suggested that the repeal effort could succeed — and that Kasich’s popularity is sagging — but analysts have cautioned that ballot measures can be hard to forecast.

In the interview, O’Malley characterized 2011 as “a bit of a rebuilding year” for the DGA and cited as an accomplishment his efforts “to create a unifying brand” for a diverse group of Democratic governors based largely on job-creation efforts.

The bigger test could come next year, when 11 states have gubernatorial races on the ballot.

O’Malley’s colleagues are expected to elect him next month to serve a second term as DGA chairman, which would pit O’Malley against his counterpart across the Potomac, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), in the coming year.

McDonnell became chairman of the Republican Governors Association in August, with the understanding that he would stay on through 2012. He replaced Texas Gov. Rick Perry after Perry jumped into the presidential race.

O’Malley sought to tamp down talk about a second term, saying, “We’ll see what everyone has to say come December.”

He said he was pleased with Tomblin’s Oct. 4. win in West Virginia, where Republican businessman Bill Maloney sought to link the incumbent to President Obama.

“The RGA dumped a ton of money on [Tomblin], but he stuck to his jobs message,” O’Malley said.

In Kentucky, polling has shown Gov. Steve Beshear (D) with a double-digit lead heading into Tuesday’s election against state Senate President David Williams (R).

But the DGA has made little headway in weakening the Republican grip on two Southern strongholds.

Jindal won nearly two-thirds of the vote in Louisiana, more than enough to bypass a runoff election this month.

And in Mississippi, Phil Bryant, the lieutenant governor under Gov. Haley Barbour (R), is heavily favored Tuesday over Democrat Johnny DuPree, the mayor of Hattiesburg and the state’s first black candidate in modern times to win a major-party nomination for governor.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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