By KAREN ANDERSON
ANNAPOLIS (Nov. 5, 2009) - Republican victories in the Virginia and New Jersey governors' races may or may not indicate a national comeback for the GOP, but they could convince former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich that the time is right for a Republican to reclaim the state's top political office.
"It's going to impact Republican candidates around the country, including Maryland. As you know these off-cycle races have become fairly accurate predictors of on-cycle results," said Ehrlich, considered the strongest potential challenger to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley next year.
Ehrlich emphasized that he's set no time frame for announcing his decision about whether or not to run, but that he would pay close attention to Tuesday's elections, especially in New Jersey, watching "where ticket splitters are, crossover Democrats and independents."
Independents were by and large with Republicans Tuesday. GOP gubernatorial candidates won the independent vote by roughly a 2-1 ratio in both Virginia and New Jersey, according to exit polling reported by the Associated Press.
"Independents, as you know, pretty much decide races these days," said Ehrlich, who lost to O'Malley in 2006 by just over 118,000 votes in a heavily Democratic state.
Todd Eberly, political science professor at St. Mary's College said that among Maryland Republicans, Ehrlich is currently the strongest candidate for governor.
"I think at the moment you'd be hard pressed to identify a Republican that would have a better chance statewide in Maryland," Eberly said. "A majority of voters supported the job he was doing, but he still lost. I think that speaks to the voting advantage that Democrats have in the state."
The question is whether Tuesday's results are a sign that the Democratic advantage in Maryland is vulnerable.
In Virginia, where governors cannot run for re-election, the state's former Attorney General Republican Bob McDonnell defeated his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, with nearly 59 percent of the vote. McDonnell expanded on the 13 percentage point lead he had in the polls going into the nationally watched gubernatorial election, according to polling averages by Real Clear Politics.
McDonnell took down the incumbent party that had occupied the governor's office since 2002.
"I don't think this necessarily means that people are going to be flocking to the Republican Party and I wouldn't read it as such," said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University, referring to possible reactions to McDonnell's win.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said Obama has "energized the GOP," bringing out voters who are angry with the president's policies.
Ehrlich said he was not surprised by McDonnell's success going into the election, describing Virginia as "more of a right, red state despite recent trends."
"New Jersey is a little more instructive as far as the future," he said. "New Jersey looks more like Maryland. It's a blue state, a lot of labor, very organized Democratic Party, so it's a tough state for Republicans to win. So Christie winning there, it's a pretty big deal."
In New Jersey incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine lost reelection by about 4 percentage points to Republican challenger Chris Christie.
Eberly said the impact of a Republican win in New Jersey will be significant.
"It will send a signal that the Republican base is more energized and more eager to get out and vote," he said. "It would also send a message that whatever exuberance that Democrats had in 2008, it has been dampened."
A drop in enthusiasm by Democratic voters could be all that's needed to energize Republicans.
"It's definitely looking more and more like it's going to be an anti-incumbent year," said Justin Ready, former executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. "In Maryland the majority of the incumbents are Democrats, so I think Democrats need to be concerned about that. I think it's a bright spot for Republicans."
After a Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, O'Malley said "every race is different," noting, "Maryland's not New Jersey or Virginia," but that he saw the results from Tuesday's elections as an indicator of the anxiousness voters feel about the economy.
"What I took from what I saw in the results last night was that overall people are very apprehensive--rightly so--about the economy," he said. "And they want their government to work harder to get us out of this recession as soon as possible."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.