If all had gone as planned, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley would be preparing to hand over the keys to state government to his longtime deputy, who campaigned on a promise to build on O’Malley’s accomplishments. The transition could have provided a burst of momentum over the next few weeks as O’Malley (D) weighs a 2016 White House bid.
So much for that scenario.
Republican Larry Hogan’s stunning victory last week delivered a knockout blow to Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown’s gubernatorial ambitions. But it was also a punch to the gut for O’Malley as he continues to ponder his political future.
At a minimum, Hogan’s win complicates the final 21 / 2 months of O’Malley’s tenure as he attempts to shore up his progressive legacy in the heavily Democratic state. Though O’Malley wasn’t on the ballot, Hogan framed the governor’s race as a referendum on a third O’Malley term after what the Republican candidate described as eight years of excessive tax increases.
Political observers differ over the damage done to O’Malley’s presidential aspirations, with some arguing that voters in early nominating states such as Iowa and New Hampshire care far more about O’Malley’s message than the outcome of a gubernatorial election — particularly in a year in which Republicans prevailed in so many other places.
“Brown winning would certainly have been better for O’Malley,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist. “But if O’Malley doesn’t get off the ground as a presidential candidate, this won’t be the reason.”
Others, however, suggest that O’Malley’s long odds have grown even longer in what would probably be a Democratic primary contest against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“The once-flickering presidential hopes of Martin O’Malley have now been extinguished,” said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University.
Lichtman said Brown ran “a miserable campaign” and is responsible for last week’s loss. At the same time, he added, “there’s no way to untie the rope between Martin O’Malley and Anthony Brown.”
Pundits and campaign donors — whose support is key for any White House hopeful — are keenly aware of this dynamic, Lichtman said.
As soon as Brown entered the Democratic primary in May 2013, O’Malley made his preference clear, endorsing the lieutenant governor as an “outstandingly effective” leader.
O’Malley was not highly visible on the campaign trail, however, in part because he and Brown believed that Brown needed to establish himself as his own man. In addition, with O’Malley’s poll numbers dropping to an eight-year low, Brown aides thought the governor would be of limited help with some audiences.
O’Malley was also spending a good deal of time crisscrossing the country, campaigning for Democrats in other states and seeking to broaden his exposure in key early nominating states.
Just before the election, O’Malley’s political action committee released a list of 36 appearances the governor made on Brown’s behalf in the closing weeks of the contest.
The list was meant to bolster the case that O’Malley had been there for Brown, even if few of the events — which included church visits and stops at Metro stations — generated much news media attention.
O’Malley described his role as “primarily to crank up the base.”
Aides scheduled O’Malley for an interview with The Washington Post two days after the election so he could elaborate on his political activities nationally. But the interview was postponed after Brown lost.
The governor “was as disappointed as anyone with the outcome of the race,” said O’Malley spokeswoman Lis Smith.
But she disputed the idea that the election was a referendum on O’Malley. “In 2010, the governor was on the ballot himself and ran on his record and won by 14 points in a tough year.”
Sean Johnson, director of political and legislative affairs for the Maryland State Education Association, said O’Malley’s strong record on education remains intact, with the state making record investments in school construction and its schools ranked No. 1 by Education Week magazine several years in a row
Advocates for other progressive causes said the same about issues on which they lobby.
Over the past eight years, Maryland legalized same-sex marriage, adopted some of the strictest gun-control measures in the country, raised the minimum wage, abolished the death penalty and expanded immigrant rights, including extending in-state college tuition rates to some undocumented students.
“He has an incredibly strong eight years of achievements as governor, not to mention what he did as [Baltimore] mayor,” said Terry Lierman, a former Maryland Democratic Party chairman who has helped O’Malley raise money for his political action committee.
Lierman predicted that Brown’s defeat would have “virtually no impact whatsoever” on O’Malley.
He blamed the loss on voter fatigue, a campaign “that focused on the wrong issues and a lot of people assuming Anthony Brown was going to win who didn’t go the polls.”
Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, traditionally the three strongest jurisdictions for Maryland Democrats, had unusually low turnout on Nov. 4.
Rob Werner, a longtime Democratic activist in New Hampshire, agreed that the governor’s race would have little bearing on how voters there view O’Malley.
“He wasn’t on the ballot, and it was a wave election and a wave larger than anyone thought it would be,” Werner said. “Where he’s had a chance to talk about his record here, people have been impressed by it. I don’t think this changes that.”
The far larger challenge O’Malley faces, Werner said, is emerging from the shadow cast by Clinton, who would start the race in New Hampshire in a stronger position than any other potential candidate.
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report, said Brown’s loss could be a “moderate drag” on an O’Malley White House run.
“What it does is give the opposition some talking points to use against him,” she said.
Duffy said she could envision Clinton or another Democrat in the race dismissing O’Malley by saying, “His solution to everything was to raise taxes.”
Democratic leaders, including many top Maryland politicians, are lined up to support a Clinton campaign.
Looking at the election results, Duffy said, “You know somebody in Clinton-world is having a damn good laugh.”