By John Wagner and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 11:08 PM
Election Day could hardly have gone more differently for the two titans of Maryland politics.
Gov. Martin O'Malley not only withstood a Republican wave that battered other Democrats nationwide but also won the governor's race by the largest margin in two decades and boosted his profile within the national Democratic Party.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s election as governor in 2002 was hailed as the rebirth of the Maryland Republican Party. After his second loss to O'Malley in four years, the 2002 win now looks more like an anomaly.
Their divergent paths say a lot about how solid blue Maryland has become. But Tuesday's results also reflect a race in which O'Malley made the most of a substantial fundraising advantage and skillfully painted his GOP challenger as the tax-and-spend candidate, while Ehrlich struggled to deliver a consistent message.
"Ehrlich was viewed as an incumbent in an anti-incumbent year, and this is Maryland," said Don Murphy, a Republican consultant and former state delegate, alluding to the 2-to-1 Democratic advantage in party registration. "I guess 2002 looks more like a fluke with each passing year."
O'Malley was one of only four Democratic incumbent governors certain to keep his job after Tuesday's election. Republicans wrested away at least 11 governorships that had been filled by Democrats.
In May, the month after Ehrlich announced his comeback bid, an O'Malley victory in Maryland hardly seemed a given: A Washington Post poll found the race to be a dead heat, with more voters saying they trusted the former governor on taxes and the economy.
On Tuesday, O'Malley prevailed by nearly 14 percentage points - 56 percent to 42 percent - largely on the strength of lopsided wins in the heavily Democratic Washington suburbs.
Ehrlich also failed to sufficiently energize his core voters. In vote-rich Baltimore County, home to many blue-collar Democrats, O'Malley fought Ehrlich to a near draw.
Appearing Wednesday in Annapolis, O'Malley attributed his victory both to his attacks on Ehrlich's fiscal record and his commitment to issues that Democrats care about, despite the unfavorable national climate.
"We never backed away from progressive values and the importance of progress in tough times," O'Malley said, alluding to promises to continue record funding of public education, pursue mass transit projects and maintain environmental initiatives.
Ehrlich did not appear in public Wednesday, but he e-mailed supporters remarks that echoed those at an election-night gathering: "This campaign closes a chapter in my life. Kendel and I will return to private life, and a new generation of like-minded Marylanders will carry the torch in the years ahead."
There is no obvious successor to pick up the torch, especially because for much of the past decade the Republican Party's hopes of becoming more relevant in Maryland have rested largely on one person: Ehrlich.
And aside from gains in some local races, Republicans made limited headway in Maryland on Tuesday.
The party's highest-profile win was the defeat of Rep. Frank Kratovil (D) by state Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County). But the 1st District seat had long been in GOP hands prior to Kratovil's victory in 2008, a strong Democratic year.
In the state Senate, Democrats appeared poised to pick up two seats, pending the count of absentee ballots. Democrats already hold a 33-to-14 advantage. In the House of Delegates, Republicans picked up six seats, returning the size of their caucus to 43, where it was before Ehrlich's 2006 loss. Democrats will still hold 98 seats, more than enough to determine the outcome on most issues.The comeback bid
In 2002, Ehrlich became the state's first GOP governor in a generation. Until he lost to O'Malley, Republicans talked up his tenure as the start of a political "realignment" in Maryland that could lead to a true two-party system.
Sensing a more favorable national climate - after statewide GOP wins in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts in 2009 - Ehrlich decided to try again. He announced his comeback bid in April, saying he was ready to make "history, part two" in Maryland.
Some analysts suggest that Ehrlich was never well-positioned to ride a wave of anti-establishment anger.
"He had spent quite a few years trying to moderate his message and positioning himself to fit mainstream Maryland," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., an independent Bethesda-based consulting firm. "It didn't look to people like Ehrlich was this newfound savior."
Ehrlich insisted that he was not interested in a "grudge match" with O'Malley. Yet the contest, which got off to a lethargic start, turned into a comparison of the two governors' records, with little talk from either side about specific plans.
During their first televised debate, Ehrlich sought to pick apart O'Malley's record on policing and education while mayor of Baltimore - prominent issues during 2006.
But Ehrlich never mentioned his boldest 2010 initiative: a promise to roll back the state's sales tax rate. The idea seemed to gain little traction against O'Malley's argument that a "penny" rollback was a shortsighted stunt that would reduce the state's ability to "invest" in the future.The financial pinch
Ehrlich's late entry into the race gave O'Malley an insurmountable advantage in fundraising. In August, when reports were first made public, O'Malley had $6.7 million in the bank, more than than three times as Ehrlich. The disparity allowed O'Malley to run a more aggressive TV advertising campaign.
Several of O'Malley's ads highlighted high marks for the state's record on public schools, a tuition-freeze for in-state public college students, and the governor's efforts to reduce crime and position the state to emerge from the recession.
But negative ads by O'Malley and allied groups also seemed to play a big role in undercutting the Republican. Various spots portrayed Ehrlich as a lobbyist for big business and mocked him for making a distinction between taxes and fees imposed during his tenure.
For two weeks starting in late September, O'Malley had the airwaves in the expensive Washington media market to himself. Ehrlich's internal polling numbers documented the toll the ads were taking on him - but he didn't have the money to respond.
At a forum with business leaders in early October, Ehrlich acknowledged the problem and vowed that it would soon be "fixed." But he never recovered.
In an interview, O'Malley said he thought early this year he could win reelection by staying true to core Democratic principles while honing a message that government has a role to play in creating jobs.
Yet the governor acknowledged that he wasn't always convinced that message would resonate in such an election cycle. He said he found himself at a low point in August when polls showed him neck-and-neck with Ehrlich.
At a fundraiser hosted by parents of a fellow Gonzaga College High School alum, O'Malley said he confided in the Rev. Allen P. Novotny, one of the school's Jesuit priests he knew well.
"I felt like no one was hearing what I had to say," he recalled.
O'Malley said that Novotny, 58, who died of cardiovascular disease last week, responded in Latin and then translated: "He told me, 'Keep doing what you're doing. There's nothing wrong with your message. It's that people haven't heard it yet - and they may not hear it until the very end.' "
O'Malley said he did not start to feel better about the race until after his campaign had begun to "outgun" Ehrlich in the TV ad war and the two rivals finished their last debate last month.
"I felt like I'd gone three rounds with him, and he never laid a glove," said O'Malley, who is next in line to chair the Democratic Governors Association.