LOS ANGELES — Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley labeled leading Republican presidential hopefuls here this week as narrow-minded ideologues. He cast the tea party as more “Alice in Wonderland” than of the Boston variety and challenged Democratic governors to “courageously” support greater government spending for the sake of the country’s future.
“I think people have arrived at a different point in our collective discussion about our economy,” O’Malley (D) told nearly a dozen fellow governors, party strategists and hundreds of major Democratic donors. “The genius of our country has been capped, sold short and grossly undercapitalized in the name of concentrating wealth in the top 1 percent . . . we need to focus on the 99 percent when we make policy — we are all in this together.”
His statements followed his rare re-election here Tuesday to a second year leading the Democratic Governors Association. They were a preview of O’Malley as national Democratic message man and party pit bull, roles he acknowledged he will relish in 2012.
“I’m no guru,” said O’Malley, who still performs some nights in a band and cast the challenge for his party next year in musical terms: “We’re trying to find the proper key and proper pitch and the proper words that convey our shared reality and the tough choices that we have to make.”
The recent rise of Massachusetts senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren, among others, has revealed an opening for a new generation of Democrats who can find the resonant messages to help brand the party nationally in 2012.
Figures such as O’Malley and Warren are viewed as less politically toxic than former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other members of the party’s old guard who played key roles in Obama’s victory in 2008. Democratic strategists say such new faces will be called on with increasing frequency to energize the party base in 2012.
O’Malley’s performance on that stage may go a long way in revealing whether he has the national appeal to follow the trajectory of former DGA chairs Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter to a presidential bid. If not, his brand may increasingly be seen as hyper-partisan, analysts said, and begin to push him toward a post-Annapolis future similar to that of former Virginia governor Tim Kaine, who went on to lead the Democratic National Committee prior his current Senate bid.
Republicans have made it clear they will seek to paint O’Malley as too liberal. He has indicated he will ask Maryland’s General Assembly to support tax increases and to legalize same-sex marriage next year.
“Gov. O’Malley has positioned himself to the left of President Obama, and that won’t bode well for Democrats,” Republican National Committee spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said in reaction to O’Malley’s reelection. “With candidates heading for the hills when President Obama comes to town, another extreme liberal who supports the president’s failed economic policies can’t be too exciting for those running for governor.”
As DGA chair, O’Malley’s chief task will be fundraising for the Democrats in the 11 governors’ races on ballots in November.
If his first year atop the organization is any indication, he will do so in no small part by continuing to hone the organization’s national political message, something he contends is needed to woo donors and voters alike.
After his 2010 reelection in Maryland, O’Malley set out to replicate his victory elsewhere. He drafted a memo detailing his strategy that worked its way to the White House and urged incumbent Democratic governors Steve Beshear of Kentucky and Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia to stay focused on messages of creating jobs.
“In our first meeting, he was ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ ” recalled Beshear campaign manager Bill Hyers. “I have admired the way he kept focused on that.”
Under O’Malley, the DGA also pumped money into the West Virginia race. The Democrats fought to a 2-2 tie in the 2011 gubernatorial races, winning Kentucky and West Virginia while the Republicans won in Louisiana and Mississippi.
The successes helped elevate O’Malley, who has received more frequent invitations to appear on Sunday morning news programs and in other venues as a surrogate for President Obama and Democratic Party interests. He has used the appearances to try to further brand Democratic governors as effective leaders, while lumping Republicans and the Tea Party together as obstructionists.
“He’s emerged as almost our attack dog,” said Nick Rathod, a former White House official. “He’s good at articulating a message and not afraid to pull punches.”
In 2012, the task for Democratic governors — and the potential exposure for O’Malley — will be far greater. Of the 11 governors’ seats up for elections, eight are held by Democrats, and most of those races are competitive. Analysts say Democrats have a real shot at gaining the governor’s mansion in just one state, Indiana, where a Republican is now governor.
O’Malley, however, oozed confidence this week at the DGA’s winter meeting. “The winning message is one that worked so well in Kentucky and West Virginia — bring everything back to jobs and expanding opportunity. . . I think that will carry all governors through,” he said.
Not everyone agrees. Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said she doubts the playbook O’Malley used in 2011 will be as effective.
“Beshear had the benefit of an opponent who wasn’t very good . . . and he had the luxury of running a very cautious campaign,” Duffy said. “That won’t work everywhere in 2012.”
O’Malley’s colleagues, however, are on board. They reelected him Tuesday, saying that he has a personality and approach that resonates and that there is consensus about much of his message. After years of cuts, for example, at least a half-dozen Democratic governors say they will back tax increases to balance budgets and to pay for infrastructure spending in the coming year.
“Martin is speaking to the basic values of the Democratic Party — put the interests of the people first,” Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie said.
“He has a powerful voice and articulates well the need for a balanced approach,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown, who is seeking voter support for a tax increase.
“As alluring as the Reagan-Bush message has been that we can pay less and live better, the real world doesn’t work like that,” said O’Malley. ““Reality is always more complicated than fiction. Republicans have an easier message, but it’s not the truth; it’s not the reality. I think reality will win out.”