Former Maryland Republican governor Ehrlich sets his sights on unlikely target: heavily Democratic Montgomery County

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010; 11:07 PM

To win back his old job, the former Republican governor of Maryland has set his sights on an unlikely target: the Democratic bastion of Montgomery County.

Despite lackluster performances there in his previous two bids, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is betting that anxiety about the faltering economic recovery and discontent with the status quo will penetrate even a left-leaning jurisdiction that is home to more federal workers than any other in the state.

Ehrlich, who plans to campaign again in Montgomery on Tuesday, has mapped a strategy that in part seeks to win votes in the western and northern parts of the county, which are more conservative than the communities that hug the Capital Beltway. He hopes a message of lower taxes and a friendlier business climate will sell in a county that has an increasingly diversified private sector.

"This is the type of election cycle where Democrats are more willing to cross party lines," Ehrlich said as he took a break recently from greeting seniors arriving at the county fair in Gaithersburg. "We think the low 40s is doable here."

That might not sound terribly ambitious, but in Maryland's largest county even a modest uptick in Ehrlich's support could add thousands of votes to his statewide total in what is shaping up as a competitive rematch against Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

Ehrlich won 38 percent of the vote in Montgomery in 2002, when he became the first Republican in a generation to win the governorship in Maryland. His share dropped to 37 percent against O'Malley in 2006. Two years later, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the GOP presidential candidate, managed 27 percent.

Even Ehrlich advisers say that, by itself, improvement in Montgomery isn't likely to be enough to send Ehrlich back to Annapolis. Some analysts say his time would be better spent campaigning elsewhere.

There appears to be room for growth: Given its size, Montgomery is home to more registered Republicans - 122,189 as of last month - than any other Maryland jurisdiction but Baltimore County, which had 4,000 more. And it has nearly as many registered independents - 120,938 - as Republicans. Together, those two groups account for about 43 percent of its electorate.

Some more liberal Republicans have been elected to represent parts of Montgomery, most notably Constance A. Morella, a longtime congresswoman.

The numbers

Still, a GOP candidate for governor hasn't cracked 40 percent in Montgomery since 1994, a banner year nationwide for Republicans, when the party's nominee, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, nearly upset Parris N. Glendening (D) statewide. She got 41 percent in Montgomery.

O'Malley advisers say they don't expect a repeat of that scenario. O'Malley, a former Baltimore mayor who grew up in Montgomery and has relatives there, has become better known in the racially diverse jurisdiction only since defeating Ehrlich four years ago, they say.

"Families in Montgomery County understand that Bob Ehrlich is out of touch and that his empty promises today stand in stark contrast to his failed record as governor siding with George Bush and special interests time and time again," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

O'Malley aides say that the governor's priorities are more in step with a county that cares deeply about education, the environment and transportation as well as the economy. O'Malley made such an appeal at a recent event in Silver Spring, where he outlined his vision for mass transit and reaffirmed support for a light-rail connection known as the Purple Line. Ehrlich has said that rapid bus service is more cost-effective, a position at odds with that of many county business leaders.

Like Ehrlich, O'Malley has made job creation the central theme of his campaign. And Democratic strategists say there is limited headway Ehrlich can make in Montgomery.

"I think any Republican in any jurisdiction has an opportunity to make inroads his year, but the question is how far they can go," said Jerry Pasternak, a longtime political adviser to former Montgomery County executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who ran against O'Malley in the 2006 Democratic primary. "Within the Democratic base, there's not really a lot of dissatisfaction here with the way things are going. Big numbers favored health care and other actions on the federal level. And we're not being hit as hard by job losses and unemployment. So it makes it hard."

Last month, the unemployment rate in Montgomery was 5.7 percent, compared with 7.6 percent in Maryland.

Several legislators from the all-Democratic Montgomery delegation of the General Assembly, who have been campaigning for their reelections, said they have heard far more anger directed at Pepco for a recent string of electricity outages than at the governor.

"Honestly, I think those people who are really worked up about taxes already voted for Ehrlich last time," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), whose district includes Rockville and Gaithersburg.

Some analysts suggest that Ehrlich might be better served by focusing more heavily on the Baltimore suburbs, the region that provided his largest margins of victory in 2002. O'Malley ran competitively there in 2006, but the sour economy could make the region - which is home to many blue-collar Democrats - far more receptive to Ehrlich.

"Any time spent in Montgomery County is time lost in Baltimore County," said Donald F. Norris, a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

High-profile appearances

Since announcing his comeback bid in April, Ehrlich has made a series of high-profile gestures to Montgomery - including his choice of Rockville to launch his campaign.

Ehrlich has tapped a running mate from the county, former Maryland secretary of state Mary D. Kane of Potomac. She has been a regular at community events in recent weeks. Ehrlich unveiled his most significant policy initiative, a small-business plan, in Gaithersburg. At that event, he called Montgomery "a second home, for obvious reasons."

He has opened a hulking county campaign headquarters in a old car dealership on Rockville Pike, with a state-of-the-art phone bank system in the back. On Tuesday, Ehrlich will host a "More Jobs, Lower Taxes" roundtable discussion at the site.

Katja Bullock, a former Bush administration official who is guiding Ehrlich's Montgomery campaign, said that it remains "hard for a Republican" but that she has found residents surprisingly receptive to Ehrlich's candidacy, particularly those who live west of Interstate 270.

"It is probably my most fertile ground" Bullock said.

That might be a reflection of several demographic crosscurrents sweeping over the county.

Montgomery's heavily populated communities around the Beltway remain reliably Democratic, filled with many residents who either work for the federal government or have a connection to it. In growing areas farther west and north, those connections are weaker and the politics are more complicated.

Parts of northwest Montgomery more closely resemble Frederick County in politics and culture than the Beltway communities, said Adam Pagnucco, a popular political blogger in Montgomery. Figures compiled by his blog, Maryland Politics Watch, show a few localities, including Darnestown and Damascus, where McCain outpolled President Obama in 2008.

As the county has grown, Montgomery's economy has the county become less defined by the federal government, which employs about 10 percent of the county workforce, said Rich Parsons, a public relations consultant who is a former executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party and a former president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.

A growing private sector, which includes many biotechnology companies, could be a receptive audience for Ehrlich's message of business growth, Parsons said. At the same time, Montgomery's population has become increasingly diverse ethnically and racially, with the fastest-growing groups those who tend to vote Democratic, he said.

The county's Hispanic and black populations have grown by more than 20 percent since 2002.

O'Malley's largest challenge, in Montgomery and statewide, could be motivating people inclined to vote for him to go to the polls. Montgomery has many hotly contested primaries in September but fewer competitive races in November's general election. Four years ago, O'Malley was buoyed by anger at President George W. Bush, which has since dissipated.

Ehrlich's biggest challenge in Montgomery might be getting enough people to listen. Campaign finance reports this month showed O'Malley with a 3-to-1 advantage in cash on hand. That could give him a significant edge as both candidates start airing TV ads to make their case in the expensive Washington market.

At the county fair, the potential voters Ehrlich met fell into three camps. Some breezed by him, muttering "I'm a Democrat." Others greeted him enthusiastically, wishing him well in his bid to return to office. And then were those such as Earl Sulmonetti, a retired minister from Gaithersburg, who could well be responsible for Ehrlich's fate. Sulmonetti, who has a relative who recently lost a job, said he is willing to hear Ehrlich out on the economy.

"I think O'Malley has done okay," said Sulmonetti, a Democrat, "but I'd like to wait to see what both of them are proposing for the next four years on jobs. I think it boils down to that issue."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed this report.

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