Race could hinge on Anne Arundel, slots
Now that the filing deadline has passed, it's a near certainty that voters in November will get to choose between incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Bob Ehrlich.
This unique race, pitting governor against ex-governor, will be quite different from the O'Malley-Ehrlich match-up in 2006.
Back then, Ehrlich was the much-criticized incumbent who suffered mightily from the unpopularity of his fellow Republican, George W. Bush. Many Marylanders opted to send Bush a message of disapproval by voting against the top Republican on the ballot: Ehrlich.
That large, anti-Bush vote turned what had been a close election into a six-point romp for the Democrat O'Malley.
This time, we could see a reversal of roles.
Frustration and disappointment over the Obama administration's handling (or mishandling, depending on your point of view) of the economy is palpable. Barack Obama may not have created conditions that led to the worst recession in 80 years historians will award that dubious distinction to Bush but he's being blamed for the nation's agonizingly slow recovery.
If the country remains mired in an economic stall with high unemployment and low consumer confidence, Republicans could make major gains. Maryland voters might well express their anger by punishing the state's top Democrat on the ballot: O'Malley.
At the moment, the stars seem to be aligning for Ehrlich, just as they did eight years ago when he came from behind to defeat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
But once the weather cools and voters start paying attention, things could look markedly different.
O'Malley has made some recent missteps. His campaign attacks erroneously tying Ehrlich to the gulf oil spill were so transparent that the smear tactic backfired. Another slanderous ad from the O'Malley camp, calling Ehrlich a lobbyist for Big Oil and other evil interests, didn't fool anyone, either.
Those gutter tactics turned Ehrlich into a sympathetic figure.
Meanwhile, O'Malley continues his Obama-esque "Jobs Across Maryland" tour, even as companies announce more layoffs and the public remains skeptical of an economic turnaround.
This is not a winning formula.
O'Malley doesn't seem to grasp the fury of Maryland voters, but Ehrlich does. This time, he holds the advantage of being the outsider challenging an incumbent who's had to take some unpopular steps layoffs, program cuts and tax increases.
In this election, Ehrlich is the one offering a fresh perspective and a different approach. It could be enough in a year of disenchantment to draw unhappy Democrats and independents to his side.
Then again, O'Malley remains in a strong position by virtue of the lopsided Democratic voter registration in Maryland, especially in two key jurisdictions Baltimore city and Prince George's County where the majority-black population tends to vote for Democrats by gigantic margins, and Republicans constitute less than 10 percent of the electorate.
For Ehrlich to win, he must make the 2010 election resemble 2002 (a 66,000-vote victory) rather than 2006 (a 117,000-vote loss).
That's a net difference of 183,000 votes.
To recoup all those lost votes, Ehrlich must greatly improve his winning margins in Republican strongholds, such as Carroll, Frederick and Harford counties, hope for slim turnouts in the big Democratic bases of Baltimore city and Prince George's County and substantially trim his losing margin in vote-rich Montgomery County.
Even then, the election could turn on two other jurisdictions, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County.
Ehrlich beat Townsend by 64,000 votes in Baltimore County. Four years later, though, he outpolled O'Malley in Baltimore County by just 9,000 a net loss of 55,000 votes.
So far this year, Ehrlich sentiment is running strong in that moderately conservative county where he was born and raised.
The situation in Anne Arundel is far more unpredictable. Ehrlich won there by 53,000 votes in 2002, but by only 28,000 in 2006.
Anne Arundel voters usually favor conservative candidates. But an extra element has been added to the mix: the contested Arundel Mills slots referendum.
On July 20, the Maryland Court of Appeals hears oral arguments on the issue, with an expedited ruling likely in early August.
A recent poll by those pushing for a referendum showed that nearly four out of five Anne Arundel citizens favor a vote; a similar number expressed opposition to the designated slots site.
What especially angers activists fighting slots at Arundel Mills is the legal work Ehrlich did for the slots developer to help pass the zoning ordinance that was petitioned to referendum.
Their poll numbers suggest this factor might generate enough anti-Ehrlich feeling to cut sharply into his conservative Anne Arundel base and draw independent voters toward O'Malley, particularly if the governor continues to support holding a referendum.
How the two candidates position themselves on this localized controversy as well as the final court ruling could have a major bearing on Ehrlich's ability to draw the vote margins he needs in Anne Arundel to avoid a repeat of 2006.
Barry Rascovar is a State House columnist and communications consultant. His e-mail address is email@example.com.