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August 25, 2010

So far, no silver bullet

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Various polls of the Maryland gubernatorial contest continue to show incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley and his Republican opponent, former-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., in a statistical tie should the election be held today.


Those observing the election from a political science point of view are seeing a very confusing mishmash campaign from both camps. The main election issue appears to be the economy and identifying who can address Maryland’s untraditionally high unemployment rate.


In spite of voter angst and discontent, the horrible economy and the high rate of unemployment, one should never forget that Maryland is a cobalt blue state with almost overwhelming numbers which favor a Democrat – especially an incumbent Democrat.


Not to be overlooked is the inescapable dynamic that a majority of Marylanders actually believe that government is the answer to all problems.


So, the Republican ranting and raving about government being the problem will gain only slight traction.


The petty bickering and negative campaigning, as practiced by the O’Malley camp so early in the campaign, has caught some by surprise. Governor O’Malley got away with the polished street-fighter approach in 2006 for many reasons including the collusion of an overwhelmingly sympathetic press.


No longer is the state dominated by one or two major news organizations and the access to more information does not serve the Maryland Democratic Party machine well.


Now, more than ever, when a negative ad is unleashed upon the public, blogs, Facebook, iPhones, radio stations, and websites light up identifying what is factual and what is not.


Besides, the ads have failed to define for the voter how it is that Governor O’Malley intends to lead Maryland out of the mess we are in these days.


Surprisingly, the cost of electricity has not developed as a definitive wedge issue. Four years after the acrimonious 2006 gubernatorial campaign, electric rates in the state are still high.


In the November 2006 gubernatorial election, one after another Maryland voter said that they voted for now-Governor O’Malley because he was going to lower their electric bills. Everyone but the major media in Maryland knows how well that worked out.


Miraculously, the media is still discussing whether or not the Bay Restoration Fund user fee, enacted during the Ehrlich administration, was a general revenue tax or a fund-specific user fee, this in the face of the fact that the Maryland General Assembly’s 2007 special session raised taxes by about $1.4 billion on Governor O’Malley’s watch.


It was billed as the tax increase to end all tax increases and yet the next session of the Maryland General Assembly and the next governor will be greeted by a $1.8 billion state budget deficit in January.


Actually, neither candidate has the real edge with their record of tax and spending. According to an article by Annie Linskey in The Baltimore Sun on August 1, former Governor Ehrlich raised taxes, including the Bay Restoration Fund – flush tax, by $2.9 billion versus the $4.7 billion raised by Governor O’Malley.


“While the amount of money spent to run the state government grew under both governors, the rate of growth on O'Malley's watch was markedly slower: an average of 2.7 percent annual, to 7.2 percent under Ehrlich. That difference can be explained at least in part by slowing economic growth,” observed Ms. Linskey.


And both candidates have yet to address how they will balance the budget in the next fiscal year. Both have primarily focused on jobs as a potential wedge issue.


It is a somewhat odd approach by the sitting governor because too many Marylanders do not need blogs and websites to tell them that they are under-employed or jobless. Not even the most persuasive ad, or a sympathetic news media, can convince an unemployed person that they really are better off after four years of Governor O’Malley.


The latest approach of both candidates is to attack each other’s credibility. That approach will not work for either candidate.


Both candidates are trying hard to reach out to their base; but even that is fraught with challenges.


The Democrat base is increasingly showing signs of fatigue after two years of President Barack Obama.


In 2006, Governor O’Malley’s margin of victory came from the hard-core left, independent voters and very conservative voters – who sat out the election.


In 2010, both candidates are in a pickle.


After four years of governance, Governor O’Malley has little to show for his efforts. Nevertheless, the sitting governor needs to plead with weary Democrat voters that his approach will work in addressing the state’s economy if he is given more time in office.


The street fighter negative campaigning that served him so well in 2006 will not work in 2010. Governor O’Malley needs to dip into the playbook that served him well as mayor of Baltimore, a reliable and thoughtful leader with new ideas for the future and a steady hand at the helm in today’s storm.


For former Governor Ehrlich, it looks like the hard right of the Republican Party is once again going to sit out this election. The endorsement of the primary opponent by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin did not help.


In order to gain the vote of the middle-of-the-road voter, Governor Ehrlich needs to give up the hope of winning over the hard-right in order to convince independents that he will maintain the same level of government services and bring about a change in approach to Maryland’s attitude toward small businesses and job creation.


Of course, the election will not occur today and the time between now and November may be measured in light-years in Maryland politics.


According to the latest Rasmussen poll, neither candidate can see the statehouse in November from August’s point of view.


So far neither candidate has been able to deliver a silver bullet that will put them over the top.


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