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Maryland as Microcosm

In Maryland, where I teach, people often tout their state as “America in miniature” because topographically it features everything from mountains to the Chesapeake Bay to the Atlantic Ocean. If the whispers I’m hearing about former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich making a run to recapture the statehouse turn out to be true, Maryland–a lopsidedly Democratic state–could provide a useful electoral microcosm for the rest of the country in 2010.

What I mean by that is a contest between Ehrlich and incumbent Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley would control for a lot of the candidate/campaign effects and environmental factors and thus isolate the generic net effect on shifting partisan fortunes since 2008 or, I suppose, 2006.

  1. 1. For starters, Ehrlich-O’Malley would be a rematch of the 2006 gubernatorial election, so the nominees would be the same (at least at the top of the ticket). Ehrlich would the challenger rather than the incumbent this time, but both men can point to one full term of service when making their case.
  2. 2. So far at least, there are no major personal or political scandals brewing that would drag down one or the other candidate in a way that would compound or ameliorate expected Democratic problems this fall.
  3. 3. Even with a late entrance to the race, Ehrlich should be able to raise sufficient funds to be competitive in a way many challengers are not.
  4. 4. Maryland hasn’t been a swing presidential state in a long, long time, so any effects of recent field investments by either the Bush 2004 or Obama 2008 campaigns are probably negligible.
  5. 5. Popular Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski is up for re-election this year, which could provide some tailwinds for O’Malley, but that advantage could be mitigated by Republican enthusiasm and investments in the Maryland 1st District House race rematch between Republican Andy Harris and rookie Democratic incumbent Frank Kratovil–one of the GOP’s top House targets this cycle. (John McCain carried MD1 by about 20 points.)
  6. 6. The Maryland GOP has long lagged behind the state Democratic party and has endured some recent troubles, but having former chairman and Ehrlich lt. governor Michael Steele heading the Republican National Committee 30 miles away can’t hurt. Relatedly, expect the Republican Governor’s Association to move resources into Maryland if Ehrlich declares his candidacy.
  7. 7. The roughly 10-point swing between Ehrlich’s 4-point victory in 2002 over Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and his 6-point loss to O’Malley in 2006 is roughly the same as the swing nationally between Bush’s 2004 3-point victory and McCain’s 7-point defeat.
  8. 8. As far as state-level fiscal angst, Maryland’s projected 2010 mid-year budget gap of 6.8 percent is almost identical to the 6.6 percent national average, and its 20.4 percent overall FY10 projected budget gap is close to, if somewhat below, the national average of 28.6 percent. So Maryland is not an outlier in terms of the degree to which its state fiscal situation is exacerbating broader economic worries.
  9. 9. Finally, and I think perhaps most relevant, is the fact that this is a governor’s race. The federal races for House and Senate are more obviously and closely tied to dissatisfaction with what’s happening in Washington. Governors and gubernatorial candidates around the country will no doubt be asked to express their opinions about issues like the stimulus and health care reform. But I suspect governors’ races will be better indicators of overall partisan shifts since either 2008 or the last midterm cycle.

As the incumbent, O’Malley will suffer any general anger toward incumbents, so we will see how that and/or anti-Democratic sentiment is expressed in the polls. Though Maryland is a blue state overall, its demographic mix of counties will provide some useful information in terms of where and among whom the electoral backlash occurs.

Overall, with a 6-point victory in 2006 and four years to build on it, if O’Malley loses that will say a lot about the breadth of voter anger. Maryland’s result will not be a perfect partisan referendum, but it has a lot of hallmarks of a microcosmic result.