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Tea party influence might not have helped Brian Murphy against Ehrlich

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 7:05 PM

On paper, Brian Murphy's bid for governor of Maryland shared much of the same storyline as Christine O'Donnell's Senate candidacy in neighboring Delaware: Both began their primary campaigns as virtual unknowns against far more established Republicans. And both got a major boost from an endorsement by Sarah Palin.

Yet on Wednesday morning, a victorious O'Donnell was making the rounds on national television shows, while Murphy stood silently at a Maryland Republican Party unity rally in Annapolis where he was given no speaking role.

Why didn't lightning strike in Maryland?

Murphy, a 33-year-old business investor from Montgomery County, wound up with almost a quarter of the GOP primary vote, certainly more than many expected from the political novice. But he didn't turn out to be a serious threat to former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), despite Palin's contention that Murphy was the "the only common-sense, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment" candidate in the race.

Fellow Republicans and other political observers cited several factors Wednesday that made Murphy's bid different than that of O'Donnell and other Palin-backed candidates who have pulled off surprises elsewhere.

While Murphy touted the endorsement of Palin, a darling of the "tea party" movement, he never really branded himself a tea party candidate in Maryland the way O'Donnell did in Delaware.

Had Murphy done so, it's not clear how much it would have helped. In Maryland -- where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one -- the movement has not taken root to the same extent it has in some states. And the parts of Maryland where the movement appears strongest, such as the Eastern Shore, are far less populated than the Baltimore and Washington regions, which dominate state politics.

Carmen M. Amedori, a former state delegate who served briefly as Murphy's running mate in April before leaving the ticket, said the two decided not to align themselves too closely with tea partiers.

"There was so much controversy about who they were and what they stood for," Amedori said, citing the "birthers," who questioned President Obama's citizenship, as an example. "There were too many cobwebs."

Ehrlich noted to reporters Wednesday that he and his wife had accepted invitations to appear at tea party gatherings in Maryland and said he did not consider himself fundamentally at odds with the movement. Compared with nine-term Rep. Michael N. Castle, who lost Delaware's GOP Senate primary, "that's a major difference," Ehrlich said.

Parts of Ehrlich's record could give tea party activists pause: State spending during his governorship -- from 2003 to 2007 -- increased at a significantly greater clip than it has under Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has presided during a recession.

Todd Eberly, a professor of political science at St. Mary's College, said most voters understand the different climates in which the two governed. But Eberly added that one advantage Ehrlich has over other "establishment" candidates is the time that has elapsed since his tenure in office.

"You have to go back four years or six years to look at his budgets, and six years is a wonderland for most voters," Eberly said.

Ehrlich, he said, proved to be "an acceptable choice" to many conservatives in Maryland.

One reason for that, some party leaders said, is that Maryland Republicans tend to be pretty pragmatic. Ehrlich, who became Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation in 2003, is far more likely than Murphy to topple O'Malley in November, said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert).

Ehrlich, who supports limited abortion rights, "may not be as conservative as me, but that's okay," O'Donnell said. "I think people understand the difficulty of winning in a state like Maryland. When you're outnumbered in voter registration two to one, you need to marshal your resources and be united."

O'Donnell said there is also more overlap than in many states between the Republican establishment in Maryland and the tea party movement.

"We are the tea party," he said. "We're part of it."

On a more practical level, Murphy struggled throughout much of the campaign to get his message out.

Palin's unexpected endorsement brought a spate of media attention last month, but it had largely dissipated a few weeks later. Moreover, Murphy was not able to parlay Palin's endorsement into significantly greater fundraising. That severely limited his television and radio advertising.

Amedori said Murphy was also hindered by the media's focus on an expected rematch between O'Malley and Ehrlich from the time Ehrlich entered the race in April.

"I think that hurt Brian tremendously," she said. "It was clear from the outset that the media was not going to pay attention to the primary."

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