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Ehrlich is expected to run a competitive campaign for Maryland governor

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010; C01

As soon as former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced that he was running for governor, the race was seen by national Republicans as another possible high-profile pickup, a view almost immediately shared by political prognosticators.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report adjusted its rating of the race Thursday from solidly Democratic to one short of "Toss Up" -- saying Ehrlich is expected to run a "competitive" contest against Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

Yet for Ehrlich to break the race open, he will probably have to find a model for success that differs from other Republicans'.

He doesn't fit the mold of political newcomer that prevailed in November in New Jersey, Massachusetts and, to a lesser degree, Virginia.

And unlike other members of a rare class of five former governors well positioned this year to win back their old jobs, Ehrlich's course is more perilous. He isn't running for an open seat or even one with an unpopular incumbent. O'Malley is an adept campaigner who has decent approval ratings, millions in the bank and the support of a party that holds more than a 2-to-1 majority among registered voters.

Having governed in better economic times, Ehrlich also has a record of increasing spending at a faster rate than O'Malley and going along with an increase in the property tax rate that might do little to inspire the party faithful or independents concerned about the growing reach of government.

"What's different for Bob Ehrlich?" asked Jennifer E. Duffy, a senior editor for the Cook Political Report. "Why does he think that Maryland has changed to the degree that it will reelect him? The answer is not yet clear."

Evolving formula

National Republican strategists polled last week shrugged off such questions, saying that the winning formula for Republican gubernatorial candidates is evolving and that Ehrlich will more than fit the bill.

"People across the board want competence," said Ron Kaufman, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "If 'change' was the word in '09, I believe 'competence' will be the word in 2010."

"Competence," echoed Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, who is credited with helping chart the course that led to the GOP gubernatorial wins in the fall. Ayers said, "Ultimately, governor's races are about governors' records. . . . It will come down to 'Who do you trust with our state's checkbook?' "

Four other former governors -- Roy Barnes (D) of Georgia, Terry Branstad (R) of Iowa, Edmund G. Brown Jr. (D) of California and John A. Kitzhaber (D) of Oregon -- are running largely on similar themes, arguing that they've done the job once and can do it again. All but Branstad are running for open seats, and he has a large lead in polls over Gov. Chet Culver (D).

Ehrlich has promised a forward-looking vision with new ideas for the state and has scheduled his official campaign kickoff for Wednesday morning in Rockville. But it remains to be seen how he will shape his campaign to close a disparity in polls taken earlier this year that showed him trailing by about the same six-point difference he lost by in 2006.

The New Jersey model

Asked in a conference call with reporters Tuesday which recent Republican win most influenced his decision to run, Ehrlich pointed to the one in New Jersey, saying it was "probably the most relevant race for us."

But even that Republican upset offers few clues about a possible path to success for Ehrlich.

In New Jersey, Chris Christie prevailed in a traditionally blue state that had not elected a Republican to statewide office in more than 10 years, a victory largely attributable to independents who supported him by a near 2-to-1 margin.

The road map for Ehrlich ends there.

Christie also benefited from the fact that Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) was one of the least popular governors in the country and that corruption probes at all levels of state government had exacerbated anti-incumbency sentiment. Christie, a former U.S. attorney with a tough-on-crime reputation, also had a relatively thin record on other political issues that could be used against him.

None of those line up as well for Ehrlich: O'Malley's approval rating hovers in the mid-40s -- not stellar but still 13 or so percentage points better than where Corzine was at a similar point last year. Ehrlich also has a weighty political record as governor -- and for decades before that as a legislator -- which is being compared with O'Malley's, including in a spirited, 30-minute debate about tax policy Thursday on the floor of the House of Delegates.

Part of that fiscal record could undermine support among Ehrlich's base, although some "tea party" supporters said they'd prefer Ehrlich's budgeting to what they've seen from O'Malley.

Total spending in Maryland rose 26 percent in Ehrlich's tenure, compared with 13.9 percent under O'Malley, not including money set aside for reserves. Over Ehrlich's four years in office, the state also collected nearly $700 million in additional property taxes under an increase Ehrlich agreed to in 2003. Ehrlich also supported higher fees on vehicle registrations and corporate filings, as well as a fee on sewage and septic systems known as the "flush tax."

Dave Schwartz, state director for Americans for Prosperity-Maryland and a former campaign fundraiser for Ehrlich, noted that his one-time boss kept a promise to not raise personal income or sales taxes.

"The main issue in the campaign is probably going to be the budget, and our members are not happy with the way the incumbent in the race has spent money and handled the budget," Schwartz said.

Karen Hanretty, former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Ehrlich's time in office and record might not count against him as much as some expect, especially considering that he had largely favorable ratings when he lost in what was a bad year for Republicans.

"Incumbency is relative," Hanretty said. "Not only does Ehrlich have the advantage of playing off his 'civilian' life of the past four years, he can claim experience as governor without taking any of the blame for the last administration. I think that puts him in a stronger position than O'Malley."

But Duffy, of the Cook Political Report, said she keeps coming back to the same question: Why does Ehrlich want to run?

Of the five former governors seeking to return to office, Duffy said, she lumps Branstad, Brown and Kitzhaber together as politicians who think they governed well and can put their states back on track.

Ehrlich and Barnes, whose 2004 loss was traced largely to a backlash to his effort to remove the Confederate symbol from the Georgia state flag, are "in a group that is not so particularly flattering," she said.

"To me, they are looking for a little retribution -- they don't quite understand why they lost the first time," Duffy said. "They sort of want another bite at the apple."

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