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O'Malley turns back Ehrlich's challenge

By Aaron C. Davis and John Wagner
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 1:31 AM

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley trounced his Republican predecessor Tuesday, beating Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. by a wider margin than any state candidate had amassed in nearly 20 years, on a night when many other Democrats were toppled in a nationwide wave of anti-incumbent frustration.

In Virginia, U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly of Fairfax County was fighting to hold his seat against a challenge from Republican Keith Fimian - a conservative Oakton businessman he beat by 12 points just two years ago. With nearly all votes counted, Connolly led by only a few hundred votes and the contest appeared to be headed for a recount, which could delay a final result for at least a month.

Vincent Gray, having defeated incumbent Adrian Fenty in September's Democratic primary, easily won election as the District's sixth mayor.

And in Maryland's only close congressional contest, in the district covering the Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties, freshman Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr. lost a rematch to Republican state Sen. Andrew Harris.

Just before 11 p.m., O'Malley took the stage before supporters at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore and echoed his campaign theme: "In the toughest of times, against some of the greatest adversity our country has seen in a long, long time, the people of Maryland have decided once again that together, we move forward."

Supporters chanted "four more years, four more years" as O'Malley, surrounded by fellow Democrats and his wife and four children, basked in cheers and applause.

At 11:11 p.m., Ehrlich took the stage and conceded at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.

"Tonight is at an end," said Ehrlich, flanked by his wife and family. "We wish him well. For us this is the close of the chapter. For us, it's not sad."

O'Malley's campaign said the governor had received no concession call from Ehrlich. Four years ago, Ehrlich did not call O'Malley until the day after the election.

Ehrlich's "primary mission was to talk about the future, and too often he talked about the past," said Richard Cross, a former Ehrlich aide who writes a political blog. "This year was about change, and he had to make a case for change. He wasn't able to do that."

State Attorney General Doug Gansler, a Democrat, said Ehrlich failed to "offer a solution or an alternative that got any traction. He had to spend an awful lot of time raising money, and wasn't able to get out whatever message he might be trying to convey."

A lopsided fundraising advantage, a disciplined campaign and a left-leaning electorate that remained receptive to a Democratic message helped O'Malley emerge as the more trusted candidate on major issues such as job creation, the economy and the performance of the state's public schools.

Ehrlich's promise to roll back an O'Malley sales tax increase, clamp down on spending and approve more charter schools failed to generate the same momentum that helped Republicans win gubernatorial elections last year in New Jersey and Virginia. Ehrlich had cited those victories as reasons for seeking a rematch against O'Malley.

Heading into the last two weeks of the campaign, the governor outspent Ehrlich roughly 3-to-1 in the TV ad war. And O'Malley outflanked his opponent with commercials that drew attention to Ehrlich-era property tax, fee and spending increases. Those spots undercut the Republican's ability to position himself as the fiscally prudent alternative.

Late in the campaign, Ehrlich broadened his attack from state issues to federal ones, hitting Democrats on the federal overhaul of health care and on immigration policy.

But Ehrlich's casual speaking style, which in past campaigns struck many voters as a mark of someone who understood the pressures facing the middle class, this year seemed to some observers a symptom of a campaign that sometimes lacked focus, intensity and funding.

"The O'Malley campaign just steamrolled the Ehrlich campaign," said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "They got more money, stayed on message, got out early and kept going. If you want to draw a parallel, it's consistent with O'Malley's personality, which is hard-charging . . . and Bob Ehrlich's, which is laid-back. But his campaign just never seemed to get off the ground."

In the final weeks, O'Malley and Ehrlich spent most of their energies trying to pump up their political bases amid signs that turnout would be a particular challenge in a nonpresidential election year in which few other closely contested races on Maryland ballots.

After making an early play to make inroads into the Democratic bastion of Montgomery County, which is also home to the most independents in the state, Ehrlich drew back and focused on the five large suburban counties that ring Baltimore. That strategy propelled him to victory in 2002 against a much weaker candidate, then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D).

Ehrlich was banking on similar intensity from his home region to upset O'Malley. But Monday night, considerably fewer people turned out for a rally at an American Legion post near Ehrlich's boyhood home of Arbutus than had in April, when he used the same venue to launch his comeback campaign.

Meanwhile, O'Malley sought to drum up votes in the heavily Democratic Washington suburbs and in Baltimore, where he spent seven years as mayor. Among African-American voters key to his victory, O'Malley sought to dip into the well of emotion that helped give President Obama a huge victory in Maryland in 2008.

On the stump, the governor cast this year's contest as a choice between moving back to Ehrlich ("a friend of George W. Bush") or forward with Democrats trying to carry out Obama's agenda. In recent weeks, thousands of "Obama, we've got your back" signs emerged alongside bright-green O'Malley ones in Baltimore and Prince George's County, which have state's heaviest concentrations of African-American voters.

O'Malley's campaign said Tuesday evening that some voters received robocalls urging them to stay home even though polls were still open. The call, a copy of which was provided by the O'Malley campaign, said, "I'm calling to let everyone know that Governor O'Malley and President Obama have been successful. Our goals have been met."

Rick Abbruzzese, O'Malley's campaign spokesman, said the calls were designed to discourage Democrats from voting and were "not coming from us." Ehrlich spokesman Andy Barth said his campaign condemned the calls and was not responsible for them.

On the trail, O'Malley argued that Maryland's economy has weathered the recession better than most states. But despite O'Malley's push to fully fund public education and promote biotechnology, cybersecurity and other emerging sectors, the state's unemployment rate, though still 2 percentage points below the national average, has inched upward in recent months, to 7.5 percent.

A second term for O'Malley could give the ambitious governor a larger national profile and a shot at moving ahead on his spending priorities if the state's fiscal health improves. Over the next two years, however, projected budget shortfalls could quickly pierce any victory euphoria.

Within weeks, the governor will have to focus on the upcoming legislative session, where he and lawmakers must close a shortfall of more than $1 billion.

O'Malley's first term has been dominated by budget cuts, and he is likely to have to make additional reductions to health care, social services and other programs favored by many of his supporters. The governor's next budget is due to lawmakers in mid-January. On the trail, he pledged that his next budget would not include new taxes and would protect education funding.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) said he expects O'Malley to stay the course of "liberalism on a budget," pursuing initiatives with minimal price tags. He offered the example of a greenhouse gas reduction law, passed last year, that costs little to implement.

"Toward the end of his next term, he will have the ability to implement an agenda he hasn't been able to afford," Barve said.

Neither candidate in the O'Malley-Ehrlich rematch offered many specifics about what they would do with a second term. Several lawmakers and lobbyists interviewed recently confessed they don't have a good sense of O'Malley's agenda heading into January.

O'Malley faces pressure from liberal interest groups to incorporate their agenda. One grassroots group has been lobbying to raise the state alcohol tax to fund health programs.

Business groups will continue to advocate for an increase in the gas tax or other means to advance stalled road and transit projects. To date, O'Malley has resisted tax increases even as he supports ideas that would require new money to become reality.

Proponents of same-sex marriageare certain to make another push in January. O'Malley has not campaigned for legalization, but said he would sign a bill if one makes it to his desk. A second term also presents an opportunity for O'Malley to play a more active role in crafting education policy.

Beyond Annapolis, as one of a dwindling number of Democratic governors, O'Malley will bump up in the pecking order of national party figures. "There's a lot of selling going on right now and O'Malley is a buy," said Raymond Glendening, political director of the Democratic Governors Association.

With nearly half of the nation's Democratic governors likely to be newcomers come January, O'Malley is widely seen likely to be as the group's next chairman.

"Now, where does he go from here?" said Trevor Parry-Giles, a communications professor at the University of Maryland. "O'Malley is always going to bump up against the notion that he would have had to have done something really awful to lose in such a traditionally solid, Democratic state, but Ehrlich was a better opponent than many people were probably counting on."

Staff writers Ann Marimow and Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.

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