After stalking John Edwards as part of the Raleigh News and Observer’s Washington bureau, reporter John Wagner moved to The Washington Post to cover Maryland politics in 2004. It was the second year of Republican governor Bob Ehrlich’s term, a post he lost in a bitter campaign with Martin O’Malley in 2006. This November, the pair face off again in the Maryland governor’s race, Ehrlich fighting to take back control of one of the nation’s bluest states. Wagner spoke with CJR assistant editor Joel Meares about the rematch gubernatorial race, Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski’s statewide appeal, and this September’s primary. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
You’ve been covering Annapolis for six years now. How is the political nature of Maryland different from other states?
One thing that’s certainly unique about Maryland is that the Democrats have a two-to-one registration advantage over Republicans in the state. There are a growing number of independents, but it’s not like New Jersey or Massachusetts where independents play a dominant role. There really is a heavy, heavy, Democratic dominance.
Has that dominance ever been challenged?
In 2002, Bob Ehrlich was elected as the first Republican governor of Maryland in a generation. I came in halfway through his term, and so, at least since I’ve been here, there’s been this lingering question about whether Maryland truly is moving to a competitive two-party system or not. Ehrlich’s victory in 2002 posed the question of whether Republicans could at least get a foothold in one of the bluest of the blue states.
In 2006, after Democrat Martin O’Malley beat Ehrlich, I think most people assumed things were going to go back to one-party rule in Annapolis. And they did for four years. But now we’re revisiting that same question about whether Republicans can gain a foothold, largely because of the national environment. This is the next best shot for Republicans to become relevant in the state.
Is this a rematch then of the 2006 election? Or is the race different this time around?
I think it has mattered quite a bit and will matter even more going forward that O’Malley is the incumbent governor. Much of the race, oddly, in 2006, became about O’Malley’s stewardship of Baltimore—he had been the mayor for seven years—and Ehrlich really tried to turn that into a liability, highlighting problems with crime and other issues in the city. That component is gone. We’re now hearing very little about the city of Baltimore at all.
It’s an interesting race, because it’s a contest between two incumbents, both of whom have four-year records as governor, and both of whom are now vying for a second term; in Ehrlich’s case, it’s obviously after a four-year break. I suspect that the more we get into TV ads and negative ads in the coming weeks, the race is going to be much more a comparison of those two records, each presented in as negative a way as possible by either side.
So, even though the primary isn’t until September 14, this is already a two-horse race between Ehrlich and O’Malley?
On the Democratic side, George Owings said he was going to run but ended up not running. He was a cabinet secretary under Ehrlich, a conservative Democrat, and he had a health issue and decided not to file, even though he had announced. Beyond that, O’Malley just has some token opposition; there’s no one who they’ve taken seriously at all.
Ehrlich does have a primary and it had been getting very little attention, frankly, until his opponent, businessman Brian Murphy, got Sarah Palin’s endorsement a few weeks ago. That at least got Murphy his fifteen minutes of fame. Whether it’s going to be more than that remains to be seen.
And Murphy is running to Ehrlich’s right in the Republican primary when to win a general election in Maryland as a Republican you have to be somewhat moderate, just because of the nature of the general election electorate. The conventional wisdom on Brian Murphy at this point is that he doesn’t have much of a chance to win the primary. But there is some chance that he will get a high enough percentage of the vote that it will be embarrassing to Ehrlich.
Ehrlich seemed to welcome Palin endorsing his Republican rival.