By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009; B01
Former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said that Tuesday's Republican victories in Virginia and New Jersey would figure prominently in his thinking about a possible comeback next year, and Democrats downplayed the meaning of the results for Maryland, where their party is more dominant.
"This was a relevant event for us," Ehrlich said Wednesday during an interview. He said he plans to conduct polls and convene focus groups in coming weeks to help determine whether a rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) might be winnable.
Although he lost to O'Malley by 6.5 percentage points in 2006, Ehrlich is widely thought to be the Republican with the best shot at toppling the Democratic governor next year. Ehrlich, who has been weighing the race for months, didn't provide a timetable for when he might make a decision, saying only that he hopes to announce his intentions by winter or early spring.
"Our phones started ringing last night, and we got a lot of e-mails at the house," Ehrlich said. "It's nice, but we're trying to be pretty objective about this analysis. . . . We're doing the science. . . . I want to look at cross tabs. I want to look at independents. I want to look at ticket-splitters."
President Obama won last year in Virginia and New Jersey. But Democrats said there was little to glean from Tuesday's GOP victories in those states to suggest Ehrlich could win next year in Maryland, where Democrats have a more than 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration -- a margin that has grown since Ehrlich was elected the state's first GOP governor in a generation in 2002.
"I don't see a national mood reflected in what happened in the elections," said Mike Morrill, a veteran Democratic strategist in Maryland. "What it would take for Bob Ehrlich to win in a rematch would be a more dominant theme."
The two Republican gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey benefited Tuesday from a swing their way by independents and from a smaller Democratic turnout than last year's.
O'Malley backers noted that the share of unaffiliated voters in New Jersey is unusually large -- about 45 percent, three times what it is in Maryland. And they said the results in both states could be blamed in part on weak Democratic candidates.
O'Malley told reporters that although "every race is a little different," he thought the results partly reflected anxiety about the economy.
"Overall, people are very apprehensive, rightly so, about the economy, and they want their government to work harder to get us out of this recession as soon as possible," O'Malley said. "I think the best way to prepare for next year is to work as hard as we can right now, to bring recovery to Maryland as soon as possible. And I think that by next year, it's my hope that people will not be in such pain as we are all in right now."
Since Ehrlich's loss three years ago, Maryland Republicans have struggled for relevance on a statewide level. Some said that Tuesday's results provided much-needed hope.
"What New Jersey tells us is no state is immune to tossing out a bad Democratic governor," said state House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert). "It sure does make me feel better. It's something of a vindication of a gut feeling I've had for six to eight months. If New Jersey tells us anything, it's that nothing's impossible."
Of the two gubernatorial races decided Tuesday, Ehrlich said he considered the New Jersey outcome more instructive. He called Virginia a "still light-red" state, despite recent victories there by Obama and Democratic gubernatorial and Senate candidates.
"The Christie race was more relevant for us," Ehrlich said, referring to the victory of former U.S. attorney Chris Christie (R) over New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D). "New Jersey is more like Maryland. . . . Maryland is still tougher."
Staff writer Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.