Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley will probably push off an announcement about running for president until spring, a timetable that reflects the dominance of Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic field and the daunting challenges that O’Malley faces in raising money, according to several people helping him prepare for a possible bid.
The thinking comes as O’Malley convenes some of his biggest supporters in Annapolis on Tuesday for a day of political briefings capped off by a reception at a private residence. While the invitation advertises talk of “the way forward for our country,” aides say the agenda does not include any definite word on O’Malley’s 2016 ambitions.
Just a few months ago, O’Malley said he would “probably” make up his mind about running by the time his tenure as governor ends in late January. Some advisers have urged the governor, who is barely registering in the polls, to get in early with the aim of becoming better known and establishing himself as a more progressive and forward-looking alternative to Clinton.
But the more likely scenario, according to several people close to O’Malley, is to wait until around April, allowing him more time to ponder his place in a race that almost no one thinks he can win and to assess how Clinton is faring under mounting scrutiny from the news media and Democratic activists.
“Right now, things are all Hillary all the time,” said one Democratic consultant with ties to O’Malley, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “It makes no sense for him to make a decision until that dies down and we see where the race stands.”
After a year of intense travel — including numerous stops in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early nominating states — O’Malley has kept a relatively low profile since the bruising midterm elections. In his heavily Democratic state, he saw his hand-picked successor upset by a Republican who argued that electing Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) would be tantamount to giving O’Malley a third term.
O’Malley’s job approval rating has slid, and most leading Democrats in Maryland are rallying around Clinton.
There are also questions about the extent to which donors in Maryland, deflated by Brown’s loss, will continue to help bankroll O’Malley’s ambitions once he is no longer in office — and how extensive a fundraising network he can build beyond that.
O’Malley would almost certainly run to Clinton’s left in the primaries, and he has compiled a list of accomplishments as governor that he could tout, including legalizing same-sex marriage, abolishing the death penalty, raising the minimum wage and granting in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrants.
He has also called for a special prosecutor to reopen cases against CIA officials involved in controversial interrogations, telling the New York Times that “the United States does not torture and should not torture.” In recent days, O’Malley has also echoed the criticism Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) leveled at Congress for including a provision sought by Wall Street in an omnibus spending bill.
Still, O’Malley has long fashioned himself as more of a can-do executive than a liberal crusader, and there are likely to be others in the Democratic field, including Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), who will make an appeal to the left wing of the party.
There are also personal considerations for O’Malley, a father of four, who is moving his family back to Baltimore as he wraps up his second term as governor following a seven-year tenure as mayor of Maryland’s largest city.
“For 15 years, he has been in some pretty intense public service,” said Terry Lierman, a former Maryland Democratic Party chairman who has been helping O’Malley’s political action committee raise money. “Maybe it’s time to take a break, put family first and assess where he is and where he wants to go. I think that’s fair.”
Many longtime associates continue to believe O’Malley is more likely to run than not, even if the odds appear long.
“He’s smart enough to know you have to be in the consideration set to win,” said Trevor Cornwell, a technology company executive in the San Francisco Bay Area who met O’Malley more than 30 years ago, when both were working on Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign.
Cornwell, who is helping O’Malley raise money, said he could see him moving forward “if he believes it’s the right thing in terms of his ability to contribute his voice on issues that matter.”
O’Malley is doing many of the things that would be expected of someone gearing up for a White House bid.
He has retained Bill Hyers, the architect of Democratic New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign last year, as a senior adviser. O’Malley met privately with several potential donors while in Los Angeles last week for a Democratic Governors Association meeting and then headed to Seattle to court more prospects.
If O’Malley gets in the presidential race, “I do not underestimate his ability to gain a lot of traction,” said Lanny Davis, a former lawyer to President Bill Clinton who has supported O’Malley as governor but is backing Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Davis, a Maryland resident, credited O’Malley for being “a hands-on governor who did a lot of good things,” but like many said he thinks O’Malley’s odds of winning the Democratic nomination are slim.
“It would take serious mistakes from Secretary Clinton,” Davis said.
Clinton has said she will probably make a decision about running after the first of the year. Speculation about her timeline, however, has started to shift in the wake of several recently planned paid speeches, including one in March.
Several O’Malley associates suggested that her popularity could sag with the increased scrutiny that will come in the new year. The landscape O’Malley would face could be clearer come March or April, they say.
O’Malley spokeswoman Lis Smith declined to discuss O’Malley’s timetable for a potential White House bid but insisted “nothing has changed” regarding his intentions since a Washington Post interview in September when he said he would “probably” make up his mind about running by Jan. 21, when his term ends.
Fundraising remains a looming challenge for O’Malley and other Democrats considering a race likely to involve Clinton.
By Maryland standards, O’Malley was a prolific fundraiser as governor, and he gained exposure to donors across the country during stints as chairman and finance chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. But he would be competing against Clinton for some of the same dollars.
“It’s always a challenge when you have a dominant candidate,” said Bruce Charash, a New York cardiologist who has given to O’Malley’s PAC and is planning to attend Tuesday’s gathering in Annapolis. “The Clintons have built an enormous fundraising base. . . . But there are a lot of people who want to see more than one candidate and a lot of people who see Martin as the more progressive candidate.”
O’Malley has funded his political activities through a political action committee, which had close to $1 million in the bank as of last month. None of that money can be used on a presidential campaign.
For the coming months, aides say, O’Malley will probably continue using the PAC to pay for his modest-size political staff and to make appearances around the country.
Unlike a presidential committee, there are no limits on what donors can give, so a relatively small number of loyal supporters can keep the PAC afloat. This month, O’Malley’s O’Say Can You See PAC reported raising $581,550 during a seven-week stretch in October and November. About half of that came from just 18 donors who gave $10,000 or more.
If O’Malley were to announce a presidential bid and open a fundraising account, donors would be allowed to give only about $2,700 during the primaries.
Some activists in early nominating states hope to see O’Malley jump in sooner rather than later.
“I just think if you’re serious about running for president, you should get out here and get started,” said Tom Henderson, the longtime chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa. “You want to get in and lay the groundwork for the caucuses.”
Henderson said that it’s unclear how much “pizazz” O’Malley has but that he thinks the Maryland governor has the potential to be a credible candidate in a state where a sizable number of Democrats are looking for an alternative to Clinton.
One reason Henderson said he knows O’Malley is seriously looking at the race: He recently got a Christmas card from him.
Kathleen Sullivan, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said O’Malley clearly faces long odds if Clinton enters the race, as she hopes the former secretary of state will.
“I think it’s an uphill climb for Governor O’Malley, no question,” Sullivan said. “But New Hampshire is the kind of state where people can climb mountains.”