O'Malley vs. Nobody
"You can't beat somebody with nobody" is an old political axiom. Translation: A candidate can't be defeated if no one runs against him, just like a prizefighter can't lose if no one else steps into the ring.
In this year's governor's race the Democrat's somebody is Martin O'Malley, the incumbent governor, but, so far, the Republicans have nobody. Their best hope, former Gov. Bob Ehrlich, will announce his intentions at the end of this month. But, judging by the progress of his in absentia campaign, maybe Ehrlich should wait until the July 6 filing deadline.
Never before has a candidate done so well by doing so little. Why spoil it by actually running? Consider the events of the past six months:
In early September, the Gonzales Poll showed O'Malley 11 points ahead of Ehrlich. At the end of October, the Clarus Poll said the difference was only 7 points. Then, Republicans swept the governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey, states that went for Barack Obama only a year earlier.
A new, mid-January Gonzales Poll showed Ehrlich improving from an 11-point deficit to 9 points. Then the unspeakable: A Republican, Scott Brown, captured Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat.
Likewise, lightning struck in Maryland on Feb. 3, when political soothsayer Larry Sabato predicted that, if the election were held today, Ehrlich would defeat O'Malley. Professor Sabato, a liberal political scientist and widely respected elections expert, rated the race a likely Republican win.
About three weeks later, a Rasmussen Poll showed Ehrlich just 6 points behind and, then, last week, the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan national elections forecaster, downgraded Maryland's governor's race from "safe Democratic" to "narrow advantage for O'Malley." The newsletter reported that, "Given Ehrlich's demonstrated statewide electability and fundraising potential, he must be regarded a very serious contender."
Ehrlich's noncampaign momentum is driving the Democrats nuts. They know that once Ehrlich throws his hat in the ring they can depend on the press corps cutting him to pieces, just like they did in 2006.But until then, Ehrlich's getting a free ride. How do you attack a ghost? Or, to flip the political axiom, "You can't beat nobody with somebody." But that doesn't mean the Democrats aren't trying.
Every time that events, not Ehrlich, made the governor's race closer, the Democrats lobbed another attack at Ehrlich. But, because Ehrlich was on the sidelines, the Democrats ended up looking slightly foolish or desperate.
The first salvo came last November when the state party's new chairwoman, Susan Turnbull, sent Ehrlich a sarcastic public letter listing all the reasons he shouldn't run. This triggered a spate of media columns and blogs "Unsolicited advice for Ehrlich Wait until 2014," "Why Maryland is not New Jersey" and "Can Ehrlich defeat O'Malley?" advising Ehrlich that his situation was hopeless.
When George Owings, a conservative Democrat, entered the race against O'Malley in early January, Turnbull fired another broadside calling Owings an Ehrlich stooge while praising O'Malley. Inquiring minds might have asked why Turnbull was picking sides in a Democratic primary. Isn't the party chair supposed to be neutral? But the media, no surprise, let it go.
However, the press did give wide coverage to the Democrats' Feb. 4 charge that Ehrlich violated FCC rules when discussing slots with a Hagerstown TV station. In response to a reporter's question, Ehrlich outlined the status of various slots licenses without adding that his law firm represents one of the applicants. With the media's help the Democrats hope to parlay this into a major smear. Impossible, you say? Remember 2006 when the Democrats and the media were "shocked" upon discovering politics in state employment practices?
The shadow boxing reached a new level in late February and early March when the Democrats launched their YouTube assault, two videos calling Ehrlich a big spender/taxer and charging that Ehrlich's law firm are you sitting down? "lobbies for foreign interests and foreign governments."
Travis Tazelaar, the Democratic Party's director, introduced the videos by warning, "Putting Bob Ehrlich back in charge of Maryland's budget would be like putting Bernie Madoff in charge of the New York Stock Exchange." Scary!
Then, two weeks ago, the Democrats finally engaged Ehrlich in a dust-up over ... Iraq. During his weekly WBAL radio show, Ehrlich said O'Malley's visit to our troops in Iraq while the General Assembly was in midsession "was a decision I would not make."
Immediately, the Democrats jumped all over Ehrlich's statement as an unpatriotic slam on our fighting forces. Then things spiraled into the silly zone when Lt. Governor Anthony Brown said, "It's a hazardous environment. It can become tedious. It can be monotonous. A lot of anxiety. Even for soldiers who are not Marylanders, I bet a lot of them are saying, "I wish my governor was coming. Where is my governor?'"
Truth be known, our troops don't give a fig about politicians making photo ops on the front, and our voters don't care about political pre-game scrimmages.
The economy and solving the state's budget crisis will decide this governor's race. All the rest is window dressing.
Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.