Key Wins Bolster O'Malley In Run-Up to 2010 Elections

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley began last year at the nadir of his popularity, having just raised taxes. At year's end, he was weighing deep budget cuts likely to strain relations with key constituencies.

But along the way, O'Malley managed to rack up several political victories, in Maryland and beyond its borders, that appear to strengthen his hand heading into a widely expected reelection bid next year.

By substantial margins, Maryland voters approved two ballot measures in November backed by the governor, one legalizing five slot machine gambling sites and the other authorizing early voting in the next election. Voters' rejection of slots would have been a significant setback for O'Malley (D), and early voting should disproportionately help Democrats in a state where they enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage in party registration.

Both ballot measures were opposed by former governor and current radio host Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), whose boosters would like to see a 2010 rematch with O'Malley.

"O'Malley came out with very big wins on both of those," said Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic operative. "Republicans were trying to make a vote against those a vote against him."

O'Malley also trumped Ehrlich in a proxy battle in Maryland's 1st Congressional District, which includes the Eastern Shore. The governor was heavily involved in fundraising for Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr., the Queen Anne's County state's attorney, and Ehrlich appeared in TV ads supporting Andrew P. Harris, a Republican state senator from Baltimore County. Kratovil narrowly defeated Harris, and O'Malley's efforts are likely to strengthen his own organization in 2010 in a part of the state where Democrats often struggle. In his 2006 defeat of Ehrlich, O'Malley trailed the then-governor by about 2 to 1 in the 1st District.

Less visible to Maryland voters last year was O'Malley's increasing profile in the Democratic Governors Association, a party organization that works to elect Democrats nationally. With O'Malley as finance chairman, the group raised a record $23 million, surpassing its goal of $20 million.

O'Malley, who has since been elected the group's vice chairman, helped target resources in several states with competitive races, including North Carolina, Missouri and Washington.

His efforts should help strengthen working relationships with his Democratic colleagues across the country, and those relationships could provide fundraising help in 2010, O'Malley said in an interview.

"None of us should expect help in our election year if we don't help others in our off-election years," he said. "It holds me in good stead if we need help in Maryland."

O'Malley was out of step last year with a large majority of Maryland Democrats in the state's presidential primary. O'Malley was the second governor nationally to endorse the candidacy of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). That was in part the result of his relationship with former president Bill Clinton, who cut a campaign ad for O'Malley in 2006 and appeared at a rally for Democrats shortly before that election.

Barack Obama won Maryland with about 60 percent of the vote in February.

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