Ehrlich, O’Malley seek to nationalize governors race

By Len Lazarick

The warring camps in the battle for the State House are seeking to “nationalize” the race.

Ex-Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s forces are hoping to lash Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley to an increasingly unpopular president, and O’Malley’s troops are tying Republican Ehrlich to Big Oil, the Gulf spill, Big Tobacco and even the bailout of big banks.

On Wednesday night, Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, said this year’s elections were “a titanic collision of two competing ideologies … one lead by Barack Obama and Martin O’Malley.” Speaking at a Howard County fundraiser for Ehrlich, Fleischer at least four more times mentioned “President Obama and Governor O’Malley” in the same phrase, accusing them of “a fundamental distrust of free enterprise,” even referring to the “Obama-O’Malley era.”

Earlier that same day, former first lady Kendel Ehrlich began her speech to a luncheon for Republican women with criticism of health care reform and other policies by Obama, who is “doing a very poor job.”

In what analysts of every stripe see as a bad year for Democrats, Ehrlich’s camp is using a tactic O’Malley and Democrats employed effectively against him in 2006. The Democratic Party and O’Malley repeatedly linked Ehrlich and the increasingly unpopular President Bush together — fairly easy to do since Bush was a frequent visitor to the state and appeared with Ehrlich at a major fundraiser.

Ehrlich and his camp firmly believe that it was his connection to Bush and the Republican Congress that gave O’Malley the edge to beat him by 6.5% in his 2006 re-election bid. They believe that they were caught in the wave that restored the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, even as Ehrlich was the only one of seven incumbent Republican governors not to win re-election.

It will also be easy for Ehrlich to link O’Malley to Obama, whom the governor has repeatedly praised for his “leadership” during Obama’s frequent forays into Maryland – a convenient backdrop outside of Washington for any president’s important announcements.

Obama’s poll numbers have fallen recently, and the numbers for Congress, where Marylanders hold three of the top leadership posts in the House if you count Baltimore-native Nancy Pelosi, are terrible.

As political analyst Charlie Cook told a meeting of leaders from state legislatures around the country in Annapolis this month, “If you’re the party in power during a recession, you going to take a hit.”

“When basically you’ve got unified (single party) government, [the election is] really a referendum on the party in power,” Cook said, referring to the national scene.

Tying O’Malley to Obama may be less effective in Maryland where the president is more popular than he is on the national scene by 8 percentage points, according to the latest Washington Post poll. But that survey, which showed the O’Malley-Ehrlich contest as an even 47-47 among likely voters, was taken just a week after the Gulf oil spill began, long before Obama was getting pummeled for his role.

More discouraging to the O’Malley forces is the question in the Post poll showing that slightly more than half of Maryland voters think that things in the state “have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track,” a number slightly higher than where Ehrlich stood in his re-election bid four years ago. The two men had similar job approval ratings at this point in their terms.

Cook said that national polls are showing 57 to 58% of voters think the country is on “the wrong track,” like a warning light flashing “danger-danger-danger” to the party in power.

It’s a much bigger stretch to tie Ehrlich to the oil spill as O’Malley ads continue to do. The latest radio spot also links his law firm as a lobbyist for “Big Tobacco” and “banks looking for billions in bailouts” and slots at Arundel Mills mall.

Ehrlich has headed a small branch office of Womble Carlyle, a large North Carolina-based firm with 11 offices whose clients do include major corporations. The best Democrats can come up with is that two of Ehrlich’s associates registered as lobbyists for a local development firm and a mortgage financing company and two represented a company on an harbor oil spill. Ehrlich himself didn’t “lobby.”

Reporters, columnists and editorial writers have widely discredited the initial ad for its claims that Ehrlich was “a Big Oil lobbyist.”

But connecting Ehrlich to unpopular “special interests,” which have no headquarters here, is clearly similar to Ehrlich’s strategy of tying O’Malley to unpopular national policies.

We’ll see how well this works with disaffected voters unhappy with the economy, the direction of the state and the country, and even with the two leading candidates for governor. In the Post poll, 45% of voters said they wish they had “more choices” in the race.

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