Q&A: The Washington Post’s Chief Maryland Reporter, John Wagner

“If the Republican wins in Maryland then it’s going to be a big night for Republicans in the country.”

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.

They certainly spun it that way, and I think there’s probably some truth to that. I don’t think you would have seen Ehrlich bringing Palin in on his behalf even if she were willing. It would turn off more general election voters than it would turn on. There hadn’t been much polling that had included Murphy before the endorsement, so there may have been some bounce for him from Palin, but there’s been no evidence that it’s put him on par with Ehrlich or has made the race particularly competitive. It got him some attention, and we’ll know more in about a week whether it got him a little more money.

Along with Palin endorsing Murphy, Mitt Romney has endorsed Ehrlich. How important are endorsements in Maryland?

Ehrlich hasn’t made much of the fact that he has Romney in his corner. And it’s hard to make a sweeping statement about endorsements in general. There are a lot of very competitive Democratic primaries at the legislative level and at the local level where I think endorsements do matter. But in a general election, if you are a Republican running statewide, I don’t know that it necessarily helps you to have a national Republican come in and endorse you. It can hurt you as much as it can help.

What are the most important issues for Maryland voters leading up to the primaries and midterms?

If you had to pick a single issue, it’s job creation, and that comes wrapped up with taxes and spending. Both gubernatorial candidates are talking about those issues a lot. O’Malley has a three-to-one cash-in-hand advantage over Ehrlich, and he’s taken advantage of that, getting on the air earlier. In the Baltimore region there’s a pretty steady stream of ads running about O’Malley’s commitment to creating jobs that feature business owners thanking him for the business environment he has created.

To the extent that he has the megaphone of television, he is speaking more loudly about that than Ehrlich. But it’s a constant at Ehrlich events too. He’s doing all sorts of round tables with small business owners, talking about the environment in Maryland for businesses and the problems they see.

How well is the media pushing back against the candidates’ spin on jobs and the economy?

There are certainly some of us who are trying. But I think one of the challenges of the Maryland press corps more generally is that there are not too many reporters who were there during Ehrlich’s term as governor. It’s more challenging, I imagine, to cover a race that is largely a comparison of two records without having experienced one half of it. It’s more of a challenge to put what Ehrlich is proposing in its proper context; it helps to know what his record is when he is talking about what he wants to do on a particular issue in the future.

Does that mean O’Malley’s being held to a tougher standard by the press?

Ehrlich’s supporters would not agree with that proposition. But I think there’s certainly a greater awareness of O’Malley’s record among reporters.

What has the tone been of the race between these two candidates?

O’Malley initially came out with a couple of negative radio ads trying to paint Ehrlich very early out of the box as distorting his past record; they had a Fantasy Land theme. Those have stopped now, and O’Malley’s TV ads have all been positive since then. Ehrlich has not aired a single ad on radio or TV yet, so it will be interesting to see what he does.

The other component of this is that both of them have all sorts of videos that they’re putting up on Facebook and YouTube. It’s been a mixed bag; there have been some negative ones on both sides. I think everyone has the expectation that it’s going to be pretty nasty before it’s over, but it certainly hasn’t gotten anywhere close to the point it was at four years ago.

In the Senate race, despite eight or so challengers, incumbent Democrat Barbara Mikulski seems like a shoo-in for the primary and general election.

That’s certainly the conventional wisdom. The Republican field against her is so large and the primary in Maryland is so late that it makes it harder for any one Republican candidate to get traction. In theory, you could have a Scott Brown scenario where one of them comes from nowhere and beats her. But it’s hard to know at this point who’s going to win the primary, and, whoever wins is certainly not going to be a household name at that point to Maryland voters. They’re going to have a lot of work to do in a short period of time.

Is Mikulski taking the field of challengers seriously?

Every indication is that she’s taking it seriously; she is well aware of what’s happened to some of her colleagues. But she remains the most popular elected official in Maryland, so the tide would have to rise pretty high to sweep her out.

How has she been able to sustain her level of popularity while her colleagues in other states have seen their approval ratings dive?

The blue nature of the state contributes to it. Though, she has also gained over the years a solid record for constituent service and has been very skillful at positioning herself as a fighter for the little guy. In the 2002 governor’s race, a lot of the Democrats, through the Democratic candidates, lost blue collar Democrats. Mikulski has been more successful retaining and connecting with them.

What effect does Maryland’s proximity to D.C. have on the 2010 race?

There is some belief that, given the large number of federal employees and people whose livelihoods are connected to the federal government, there isn’t as much of the anger at the federal government driving some of the results we’re seeing in other states. The Tea Party movement really hasn’t taken root in Maryland to the degree that it has in some other states. I think some of that probably does have to do with the relatively large number of people who either work for or have some connection to the federal government.

How have national outlets done in covering the Maryland race so far?

I don’t recall seeing anything that struck me as completely out of whack. Plus, I think that there are so many other competitive races this year that it’s probably hard to devote too much attention to a race in Maryland. If the Republican wins in Maryland then it’s certainly going to be a big night for Republicans around the country.

One aspect that has gotten some play, though, is the number of former governors who are now seeking their jobs back, and Ehrlich fits into that category—he’s fallen into a number of those pieces.

Have the candidates been handling the media any differently this election cycle?

Certainly not among the leading candidates in Maryland. Both of the guys in the governor’s race are such known quantities, so well known among the political class in Maryland, that they haven’t done too much differently. Ehrlich is very accessible and will take questions from reporters until, as he says, he’s defeated us and we can’t think of anything else.

There has been though an increased use in social media. Ehrlich is very into his Facebook page and uses that, I suppose, to get the unfiltered message out there. And Ehrlich’s press secretary is a former TV presenter in Baltimore and he’s been cutting these videos for online that are faux news reports—if you were to watch it, you might recognize this guy from a decade ago and think it was a real news report. But it’s very heavily explanatory of the candidate. That’s been an interesting wrinkle, though it hasn’t been dominant at this point.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.