Black vote is crucial to O'Malley

By John Wagner, Aaron C. Davis and Jon Cohen
Sunday, October 3, 2010

With a month until Election Day, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's chances of winning a rematch against his Republican predecessor could rest upon a big unknown facing Democrats across the country: how many African Americans turn out to vote.

The issue is paramount in Maryland, where President Obama is scheduled to appear this week with O'Malley (D) in a bid to bolster enthusiasm for O'Malley's campaign against Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

The president's appearance will punctuate a race in which O'Malley, a former mayor of Baltimore, and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), a former Prince George's County state delegate, have become fixtures at community picnics and church services in those two large majority-African American jurisdictions.

Ehrlich, who eight years ago turned to Prince George's for an African American running mate - Michael S. Steele, now chairman of the Republican National Committee - has largely retreated from the vote-rich county, focusing his campaign elsewhere. And unlike O'Malley, he is not yet reaching Prince George's voters through Washington area TV ads.

The political calculus is not complicated. Maryland has a higher percentage of African Americans than any state outside the Deep South, and black voters tend to break heavily for Democrats. In a Washington Post poll released last week, African American voters favored O'Malley over Ehrlich by 83 percent to 9 percent.

'The ballgame' this year

Even Ehrlich strategists acknowledge that it will be nearly impossible for the Republican to win if O'Malley can motivate African Americans to go to the polls in numbers similar to those in recent Maryland elections.

That kind of turnout is not a given. Among the troubling signs for Democrats was the dismal turnout for last month's primaries in Prince George's, where few other competitive races will be on the ballot Nov. 2 in Maryland's largest majority-black jurisdiction.

"African American turnout is the ballgame in this year's gubernatorial election," said Richard Cross, a former Ehrlich aide who writes a political blog and is not working for the campaign.

In recent weeks, O'Malley has reminded listeners of black-oriented radio stations in Baltimore of the "disastrous policies" of former president George W. Bush. He has lavished praise on Obama during appearances in Prince George's. And he has given surprisingly partisan Sunday morning speeches at churches in both jurisdictions, which together are home to nearly two-thirds of Maryland's black voters.

"Do not underestimate your power in this election," O'Malley said at recent gathering for political volunteers in Largo. "Prince George's is going to determine the outcome of this election."

It was one of more than 30 public visits he and Brown, who is African American, have made to Prince George's since early August.

Ehrlich has had one public event in Prince George's in the past two months. Although he said he plans to be more visible in coming weeks - including attending church services in Upper Marlboro on Sunday - his advisers say his priority will be trying to drive up turnout among voters in suburban Baltimore.

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