The Brian Murphy bubble
Hurricane Earl, heading up the East Coast, might disrupt the Labor Day weekend for many beach-goers. But on Maryland's Sept. 14 primary election day, look out for a "perfect storm" brewing within the state's Republican Party.
Brian Murphy is the young Montgomery County businessman challenging Bob Ehrlich for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. He can't beat Ehrlich, and he can't beat Martin O'Malley, the Democratic incumbent, in the nation's fourth most liberal state.
But, thanks to a "perfect storm," Murphy may get a third or more of the Republican vote. Here's why.
Murphy is running from Ehrlich's right. As much the liberal media and the Democrats demonize Ehrlich as a right-wing conservative extremist, he's actually a moderate Republican. Murphy, on the other hand, is the real thing anti abortion, pro-gun, anti-illegals.
That platform is a guaranteed loser in any Maryland general election. But we're not talking about a general election, we're talking about a Republican primary where turnout is notoriously low (28 percent?) and where pro-life, 2nd Amendment, anti-illegals voters have amplified strength.
For them, Murphy's platform is red meat. They desperately want to send a protest message to President Obama, Congress, Annapolis and the media, and don't mind sending Ehrlich one, too. Or, as Murphy puts it, "Bob Ehrlich is trying to convince Republicans that they have to settle to win ... saying a true Republican can't win." This week, Murphy launched his "Refuse To Settle" statewide bus tour.
Polls show 84 percent of Republicans will vote for Ehrlich against O'Malley, but in a GOP primary Murphy, not Ehrlich, is the "truest" Republican.
The Sarah Palin effect
In early August, Sarah Palin endorsed Murphy, giving him credibility among Republicans like what Oprah did for Obama among blacks and women.
A dozen Gonzales polls conducted this year in the state's Republican heartland show 70 percent of Republicans viewing the tea party favorably (6 percent unfavorably) and 52 percent saying a tea party endorsement would make them more likely to vote for a candidate (less likely, 3 percent).
Palin's endorsement led to startling GOP primary upsets in Nevada, Kentucky, South Carolina and, last week, Alaska. It's bound to boost Murphy among Maryland's Republicans as well.
It's Murphy's good luck that the most hotly contested GOP primary battles, and thus the greatest GOP voter turnout, take place in the state's most conservative regions. The 1st Congressional District (Eastern Shore, Baltimore suburbs) and state Senate tilts in Western Maryland and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties all take place where Murphy runs best.
And there's no reason for Republicans to vote in more moderate Montgomery, Howard, Prince George's and Baltimore, where most GOP races are settled or where no Republicans are running at all.
Inexperience is good
Normally, a 33-year-old from Montgomery County who's never held public office and wants to start as governor would be rejected out of hand. But in this wacky, recession-driven election, inexperience is good, incumbency is bad.
Against O'Malley, Ehrlich is the anti-incumbent outsider. Against Murphy, Ehrlich becomes the incumbent and Murphy becomes the outsider.
The Ehrlich folks see the Murphy bubble coming, but they can't do anything about it. Attacking Murphy only elevates him, and Ehrlich must conserve his limited war chest for the O'Malley showdown. Nor can Ehrlich, who needs Democrats and independents to win in November, afford to woo Murphy voters by moving to the right.
So when Murphy pulls in 30 percent to 35 percent of the GOP vote, Ehrlich will congratulate him, credit Palin and remind the tea partiers that he's a lot better than O'Malley, Pelosi and Obama.
Meanwhile, the Democrats and the media are promoting Murphy. Last week, he was on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and ABC's "Top Line." The Post's John Wagner has written several favorable articles, as the Democrats set the stage for Ehrlich's "Fustero Moment."
In the 2002 Democratic primary, Bob Fustero, a retired grocery clerk, won 20 percent of the vote against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the first warning sign that her campaign was in trouble. But unlike Murphy, Fustero didn't campaign and spent less than $1,000.
Instead, this race is reminiscent of the 1994 GOP gubernatorial primary, when Ellen Sauerbrey upset party favorite Helen Bentley and then came within 6,000 votes of beating Parris Glendening.
In 1994, a national rebellion against HillaryCare and Democratic incompetence gave Republicans both houses of Congress and sent young Congressman Bob Ehrlich to Washington.
Now, similar political winds might send Ehrlich back to the governor's mansion. Lucky for him that Brian Murphy is no Ellen Sauerbrey.
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.