Gov. Martin O’Malley’s popularity is on the upswing as he nears the end of his tenure in Maryland, according to a new Washington Post poll, but the difference in how Democrats and Republicans view his performance has never been more stark.
Overall, 55 percent of Maryland residents approve of how O’Malley (D) is handling his job, the poll found. That’s a six-point increase since a year ago, when O’Malley was in the midst of legislative battles to repeal the death penalty and pass stricter gun-control laws and had just led an effort to legalize same-sex marriage.
But O’Malley, who is now pushing an increase in Maryland’s minimum wage, is among the more polarizing governors in the country. His job approval among fellow Democrats is 79 percent, as high as it has ever been in a Post poll during his seven years in office. Among Republicans, it’s 18 percent.
The breadth of that partisan gap puts O’Malley in the company of governors such as Minnesota’s Mark Dayton (D) and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker (R). By contrast, recent polls have shown California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) have somewhat more bipartisan appeal.
With less than a year remaining in O’Malley’s second and final term, residents of deep-blue Maryland as a whole are more apt to say he has made things better than worse. However, they don’t give him marks quite as high as those he received eight years ago at the end of his tenure as a tough-on-crime mayor of Baltimore. Marylanders split about evenly on whether O’Malley has accomplished a lot or a little in Annapolis.
At the same time, very few Maryland Democrats are inclined to support O’Malley over Hillary Rodham Clinton if both decide to run for president, according to the Post poll.
Clinton is the choice of 72 percent of Maryland Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in a hypothetical 2016 presidential primary matchup. Vice President Biden received 9 percent. O’Malley, who said this month that he is moving forward with preparations for a possible White House bid, received 6 percent support.
“I just don’t see him making that leap,” said Paula Shevitz, a retired elementary school teacher who lives in Baltimore County.
Shevitz, 63 and a registered Democrat, said she was impressed by O’Malley’s ability to balance the state budget during the recession without making deep cuts to education. She liked his advocacy of gun control and same-sex marriage and said she is pleased with O’Malley’s push to raise the state’s minimum wage.
But “I just don’t feel he has had the kinds of experiences that Hillary Clinton has,” Shevitz said. “She’s a world-renowned figure. And it would be nice to see a woman president. We’ve always had men.”
In follow-up interviews, Republican voters were as likely to point to tax increases passed under O’Malley as they were his liberal social policies in explaining their discontent. Over the past seven years, Maryland has raised income taxes on high earners, the corporate income tax, the sales tax, the gas tax, the alcohol tax and the tobacco tax, among others.
“I don’t appreciate a tax-and-spend approach to government,” said Henry House, a registered Republican and a director of information technology for a dairy cooperative in Hagerstown. “Maryland has become one of the most inhospitable states to operate a business.”
House, 47, says there’s little O’Malley could do during his remaining months that would change his view.
“If he repeals everything he’s done in the last seven years, I’ll tip my hat to him and say, ‘Job well done,’ ” House said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
The rise in O’Malley’s job approval numbers occurred despite a corruption scandal at a state-run jail in Baltimore and Maryland’s botched rollout of its online health insurance exchange — two embarrassments for his administration in the past year.
Regardless of what comes next for O’Malley, his administration will be working to shape the public perception of his tenure between now and January, when he steps down, aides say.
To no small degree, that process has already started. Last month, O’Malley devoted much of his final State of the State address to recounting his seven years in office and making the case that he had guided the state in a fiscally responsible way and helped create jobs.
O’Malley has also made clear that one of his remaining priorities in office is helping elect Anthony G. Brown, his lieutenant governor of the past seven years, to succeed him.
The Post poll suggests that Brown’s bid for the Democratic nomination is being bolstered by O’Malley’s strong numbers.
Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters who approve of O’Malley’s job performance, Brown has a 21 percentage point lead over his nearest primary rival, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. Among those who disapprove of O’Malley’s performance, Brown and Gansler are in a statistical dead heat. Also in the race is Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), who is running third.
In a recent interview, O’Malley credited Brown with having “a grasp of the complexity of state government” and said “he’s not intimidated by details. He has a great mind, and also a very keen instinct for always asking, ‘How does this affect real people?’ ”