By Len Lazarick
Brian Murphy can’t win, can he?
The conventional wisdom is that there is no way the underfunded, underdog, never-been-elected-to-anything Republican candidate for governor can whip ex-Gov. Bob Ehrlich in the GOP primary. And if by some miracle he did, the common wisdom predicts the genial Murph would get creamed by Democrat Martin O’Malley.
Conventional wisdom is usually right. The common opinion of pundits and pols is that present trends do continue, historical patterns do persist and you can’t argue with the numbers: money, polls, votes cast in prior elections, years of public office.
But then you have the surprising case of Del. Ellen Sauerbrey beating Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley in the 1994 primary, and then coming close to beating Parris Glendening in the general election – or actually being the winner, if you accept what many Republicans believe about vote fraud.
The match-up between Ehrlich and Murphy “reminds me of Helen Bentley and Ellen Sauerbrey,” said Riccardo Paradiso, who was chairman of the GOP Central Committee in Annapolis in 1994. “I really feel positive about this guy.”
Paradiso was one of about 50 people at an event near Annapolis last week Murphy held about immigration. The candidate had brought in Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins to talk about his enforcement of federal immigration laws under the 287(g) program.
When someone is arrested is Frederick County, Jenkins’ deputies check the immigration status. So far he’s handed over more than 700 arrestees to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, about 8% of those picked up for crimes.
Murphy promises to have the Maryland State Police enforce immigration laws in the same way.
“Illegal immigration devalues citizenship,” Murphy said. “It creates racism” by suggesting that some people of color have broken the law. But “it’s not a race issue, it’s a law issue.”
Running to the right
Ehrlich does not generally bring up illegal immigration, and on taxes and spending, abortion and gun rights, Murphy runs much to the right of Ehrlich.
Murphy, a 33-year-old businessman from Bethesda, actually echoes the Democratic Party’s persistent charges that as governor, Ehrlich boosted taxes and overspent, without solving the lingering deficit.
“I have this crazy idea that we would actually have a Republican governor that fixes this budget without raising taxes,” Murphy said.
The GOP establishment has consistently dissed Murphy. At Republican dinners, club meetings and other gatherings, they muzzled Murphy, not allowing him to speak.
But he clearly has appeal to the more conservative wing of the GOP. That’s why Ron Bartyczak has that rare thing in his yard, a Murphy sign on a well-trafficked street in liberal Columbia.
An Internal Revenue Service retiree, Bartyczak is unhappy with the fees and taxes Ehrlich raised. He doesn’t buy Ehrlich’s argument that “fees” like the flush “fee” for the Bay and hikes in car registration are not taxes. These assertions “felt very disingenuous,” Bartyczak said. He is also pro-life and a member of the National Rifle Association, and is unhappy that Ehrlich has not taken a stronger position on immigration.
Ehrlich and his camp have largely ignored Murphy, and even dismissed Murphy’s endorsement by Sarah Palin last month, which was a major breakthrough for the struggling campaign. But Republicans on the Eastern Shore, where Murphy grew up, and from Western Maryland have been e-mailing for month about signs of an insurgence.
“In this campaign, there is only one authentic Republican candidate,” said Murphy running mate Mike Ryman, an ex-FBI agent who spent years as an assistant inspector general in several federal agencies ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse.
“We don’t need any more RINOs [Republicans in name only] running Maryland government.”
Jim Pelura, the former state GOP chairman, has been backing Murphy from the start.
“This is one of the purest grassroots campaigns that I have ever seen,” Pelura said in an interview. “Bob Ehrlich needs to shift gears.” He’s alienated a lot of people, “and he’s got to win them back.”
“To treat [Murphy] as some kind of kook or fringe candidate is just crazy,” Pelura said.
Like most underdogs, Murphy does not buy the conventional wisdom. “We’re going to take back the Republican Party,” he said.
But let’s look at the basis of the conventional wisdom. Ehrlich has 50 times as much cash on hand as Murphy, though both candidates have only started running TV ads in the past week. Murphy is untested by voters; Ehrlich has run in eight general elections, and lost only once. Lots of people know someone named Brian Murphy, but not necessarily this one. Ehrlich is well known by most Marylanders – for both good and bad. And Murphy is an unknown quantity.
Conventional wisdom gives Murphy 20% among the hard-core Republican voters who are more conservative than the electorate as a whole. Can he get to 25-30%? Maybe. Can he get to 50%? Fat chance, say the pundits and pols.
Murphy says Sauerbrey showed a conservative can win in Maryland. But Sauerbrey at the time was a four-term delegate and the vocal and visible minority leader of the House, not a complete newbie.
Bartyczak wants to “vote the career politicians out,” but Murphy’s inexperience politically “does give me some pause.” Yet, he believes “Murphy has a prayer.”
If Murphy’s prayer does not catch God’s ear, will Bartyczak vote for Ehrlich over O’Malley? “I believe so,” said Bartyczak.
And will the other Murphy supporters do that as well? The conventional wisdom is unsure.