Palin backs Brian Murphy in Md. GOP governor's race, surprising mostly everyone

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; B01

Brian Murphy, a little-known Republican candidate for Maryland governor, unexpectedly won an endorsement Wednesday from one of the biggest names in national politics: Sarah Palin.

Palin's decision to side with Murphy over former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) in September's GOP primary prompted plenty of head-scratching in Maryland political circles. But it remained unclear what impact the endorsement might have in a state where the "tea party" movement has not packed nearly as much punch as elsewhere.

Murphy, 33, a business investor from Montgomery County, has tried to position himself as a more conservative alternative to Ehrlich on issues including taxes and gun rights. But prior to Wednesday, Murphy's candidacy had been considered so much of a long shot that most pollsters had not bothered to measure his support.

Ehrlich boosters, meanwhile, argued that being shunned by Palin could actually help him in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1. To defeat Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in the November general election, Ehrlich will need to draw significant support from Democrats and independents, some of whom harbor great antipathy toward the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee.

In recent months, Palin has thrown her support behind more than two dozen candidates, a mixture of tea party favorites and more established Republican types, with decidedly mixed results.

In a posting Wednesday on her Facebook page, Palin called Murphy "a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment common-sense conservative and a firm believer in the free market and the cause for energy independence."

"Brian has the private sector experience that is so lacking in government today," Palin said in the posting. "He knows how to incentivize industry to get our economy moving again."

Murphy, who has never sought public office before, said he was "humbled and honored" to receive the support of "an icon." He said Palin's people had first reached out to his campaign about a possible endorsement several months ago.

Murphy, whose investments include a small bakery on Smith Island, has portrayed himself as having more business acumen than Ehrlich. Murphy has also sought to lump Ehrlich and O'Malley together on taxes and spending issues, arguing that he represents a clean break from the past eight years. Ehrlich has, for the most part, ignored Murphy.

While Maryland's Republican establishment has rallied behind Ehrlich, Murphy has made inroads with some conservative activists, including James Pelura, the former state party chairman.

Palin's backing seemed certain to create much-needed buzz about Murphy's candidacy, but analysts differed over how lasting it would be.

"I think this helps put Brian Murphy on the field and in the game," said Don Murphy, a GOP political consultant and former Maryland legislator who is not related to the gubernatorial candidate. "It calls attention to a candidacy that otherwise doesn't exist."

Don Murphy said Palin and Brian Murphy share similar positions on issues including gun rights and abortion and noted that Palin, too, had bucked the establishment in 2006 when she won the Republican primary for governor in Alaska.

James G. Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, said he saw little benefit for Murphy from Palin's endorsement at this point.

"Given how far this fellow is behind, I don't think it'll matter at all," Gimpel said. "It's too little, a little too late."

Ehrlich press secretary Andy Barth said Ehrlich did not seek Palin's endorsement, calling her decision "a reaffirmation of Bob Ehrlich's longtime independent streak."

"Governor Palin has made lots of endorsements around the country -- some have worked, some have not," Barth said in a statement. "The challenges facing Maryland are not necessarily the challenges facing Alaska. We have a stagnant economy and a government stuck in a devastating tax-and-spend cycle."

Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report, said Palin's decision could help Ehrlich in November with some moderate voters who are not comfortable with Palin.

"Ehrlich seems to have embraced this as pretty good news for him, which in some ways it is," Duffy said. "It will be harder for Democrats to push him to the right."

Duffy also questioned how much Palin's endorsement would help Murphy in the GOP primary. She reasoned that any Republicans disenchanted with Ehrlich are already prepared to vote for another candidate.

"Any anti-Ehrlich vote in the Republican primary would go to Captain Kangaroo," Duffy said.

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