By Aaron C. Davis and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; B01
A deep-pocketed national Republican group is stepping into Maryland's gubernatorial race on Tuesday, countering the launch of Gov. Martin O'Malley's first costly television ad in the Washington region with one of its own, saying the buy shows the party thinks the race is winnable for former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
The move by the Republican Governors Association signals the beginning of the nationalization of a race in Washington's back yard that could grow increasingly fierce.
Titled "Backwards," the ad is a broad attack on tax increases that O'Malley signed in 2007 and subsequent job losses in the state during the national recession. It's also a play on O'Malley's campaign theme of "Moving Maryland Forward."
It comes the same day O'Malley will begin airing a commercial on network television in the Washington area highlighting the state's advances in student test scores, a four-year freeze on tuition at public universities and other education achievements during his tenure.
Jennifer Duffy, senior analyst at the Cook Political Report, said the burst of spending by the two sides in the Washington market signals the beginning of a significantly more expensive, and final, chapter to the rematch between the two candidates. Duffy said the RGA money could help Ehrlich, who trails O'Malley in fundraising by a ratio of nearly 3-to-1, keep pace until he can afford to begin airing his own ads closer to the election.
More importantly, however, Duffy said the national Republican involvement would seem to indicate that RGA strategists think the race is more competitive than some others and that the group is willing to spend money to see if it can have an impact.
"There is enough demand for money this cycle that you don't buy statewide TV to blow smoke; you buy it so you can see if you can move some numbers," Duffy said. "The fact is that nobody has really taken a shot at O'Malley, and I think the RGA would like to see whether their ads can make an impression."
The RGA's 30-second ad runs through a litany of statistics on higher taxes, unemployment and other economic indicators -- some that flowed from O'Malley's policies and others common to any state during the recession. "Martin O'Malley: higher taxes, fewer jobs -- moving Maryland backwards," it concludes.
The group also plans to launch a Web site, http://martinsmess.com.
RGA spokesman Chris Schrimpf said that the 30-second ad would begin airing statewide Tuesday on network and cable stations and that the RGA would "stay engaged" until Election Day. But he would not say specifically if the group would continue to purchase ads.
"Maryland is very exciting for us," Schrimpf said. "There are many blue states with open races where we are competitive, but Maryland is one where there's an incumbent governor that we're competitive against. The people of Maryland are disappointed in their governor. He raised taxes before the recession came along, and it set up Marylanders horribly for when the economy turned."
O'Malley campaign spokesman Rick Abbruzzese, who had not seen the RGA's ad but was aware it was coming, said that the campaign was not surprised Ehrlich "and his national Republican allies would launch negative attack ads."
Abbruzzese repeated a central O'Malley campaign line, saying Ehrlich raised spending more than any other governor. "Bob Ehrlich has zero credibility on issues that matter to Maryland families, and neither do these Republican Party attack ads."
The expenditure by the RGA is likely to be matched soon by the Democratic Governors Association, of which O'Malley is vice chairman.
The group has already invested in the Maryland race through a group called Citizens for Strength and Security that ran targeted radio ads in the Baltimore area when Ehrlich entered the race in April.
Raymond Glendening, the DGA's national political director and the son of former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening, said the DGA will be spending money on television buys through the same group.
"In the very, very near future, you will see something from the independent side from us," Glendening said. "I can tell you we'll be there wholeheartedly for our vice chairman."
O'Malley's first ad in the Washington market appears to abbreviate a narrative about his character, credibility and accomplishments that he sought to build over the last two months in ads that ran in the less expensive Baltimore market.
The governor says that in tough times "I've put education first" and promotes what it calls "record investments" in Maryland classrooms.
In one section, he seems to take credit for doubling the number of charter schools in the state during the last four years.
As governor in 2003, Ehrlich signed a bill authorizing charter schools in Maryland. Ehrlich spokesman Andy Barth said that in that part of the ad, O'Malley is "taking credit for Bob Ehrlich's leadership because he can't run on his own record."
Evan Tracey, head of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, said buys in the Washington region will run about $100,000 to $150,000 a week -- and likely will grow even costlier closer to Election Day.