By KAREN ANDERSON
ANNAPOLIS (Dec. 18, 2009) - Ranked by Gallup as the country's third most Democratic state, Maryland has been a steep climb for any Republican candidate vying to win statewide office.
Still, political experts and party leaders across the state think a Republican gubernatorial victory is possible in 2010.
"I think Republicans can win in Maryland," said Todd Eberly, an assistant professor of political science at St. Mary's College. "But they've got to capitalize on current levels of voter discontent with the state of the economy in Maryland and nationally, and the budget deficit in the state."
To win the governor's race Republicans must recruit a candidate capable of raising money, develop an organization to turn out the vote and stick to a strong message, according to analysts.
"If they're going to knock off any incumbents, 2010 seems like it will be the year to try," said James Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It seems like a shame for Republicans to pass up the opportunity to run a competitive race, but they might, because this is Maryland."
As of November, Democrats made up nearly 57 percent of Maryland's registered voters while Republicans were less than 27 percent. For a Republican to win statewide, he must hold his base and win widespread support among conservative Democrats and independents.
Candidate recruitment will be essential for Republicans in 2010. Without this, Gimpel said "it'll be an opportunity squandered."
Former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who lost to current Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2006, is the strongest potential candidate, according to a September poll by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.
"At the moment Bob Ehrlich really is the Republican Party in Maryland," said Eberly, who added that "an Ehrlich run would excite Republicans" at a time when they need to be excited.
"This could be the thing to help them (Republicans) psychologically move into that national movement," he said, regarding Ehrlich's candidacy.
Other potential candidates, such as Annapolis businessman Larry Hogan, a former Cabinet secretary in the Ehrlich administration, and Delegate Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, are planning to enter the race.
Whoever takes on O'Malley has a tough fundraising challenge ahead.
As of January 2009 when the last campaign finance data was submitted, O'Malley had raised more than $2.6 million in contributions for the 2010 election cycle and spent about $1.7 million.
Ehrlich, on the other hand, had raised more than $440,000 in contributions and spent more than $477,000 as of January 2009, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections.
"(In Maryland) Republicans are probably most of the time going to outspend Democrats in order to defeat them in big races," Gimpel said.
In 2006 Ehrlich outspent O'Malley by almost $3 million and lost.
Still, due to the state's budget shortfall and national trends such as the drop in President Obama's job approval ratings, Republicans are hoping 2010 will be a year of opportunity where independent voters favor Republican candidates and Democratic voters turn out in low numbers.
But Maryland Democrats don't appear nervous about the possibility of a Republican swing in 2010, mostly due to their advantage among registered voters and the challenge Republicans face in coming up with a quality alternative to O'Malley's handling of the state budget.
"That's a standard Republican line, 'I'll get rid of the waste,' but there is no waste," said Milton Minneman, communications director for the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee. "It would be very hard for him (a Republican challenger) to get anything but the hardcore Republicans voting for him. If all the Republicans and half the independents voted for the Republican, the governor would still win because of the dominance of the Democratic registration in Maryland."
Other Democrats hope to place responsibility for the state's budget shortfall on Ehrlich, O'Malley's Republican predecessor.
"That albatross we're going to hang around the Republicans' necks," said Michael McPherson, chairman of the Howard County Democratic Party. "That's not of our doing. That's not what happened in the last four years and we just have to continue to make voters aware of the general truth."
The decline in Obama's job approval rating shows Democrats may be having difficulty making that argument on a national level.
In recent years, national politics appear to have influenced the outcome of state elections in Maryland and, Eberly said, 2010 is shaping up to be an "anti-incumbent year."
"In '94 and in 2002, the two years that Republicans did best, were incredibly strong years for Republicans nationally," Eberly said. "In 1998 and in 2006 when Democrats did well in Maryland, those were incredibly strong years for Democrats nationally. So I don't think that was just a coincidence."
As the incumbent party, Maryland Democrats are attached to the state's $1.1 billion in general fund spending reductions this year and the further budget shortfall predicted for fiscal 2011.
"In Maryland, it's nearly 3-to-1 Democrats in the House and 2-to-1 Democrats in the Senate, and you've got a Democrat submitting the budget. There's no other party that's going to absorb any of the blame," Eberly said.
O'Malley's approval rating is currently at 48 percent, 6 percentage points below Ehrlich's in the months preceding his 2006 electoral loss, according to polling by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.
"That's a danger ground for any incumbent," said Eberly.
Eberly said O'Malley should be concerned that his approval rating has fallen below 50 percent because incumbents typically do not get more votes on Election Day than what their approval rating is leading up to it.
Though O'Malley won the 2006 election, Ehrlich won in 11 counties in which Democrats on average had an 11 percentage-point advantage among registered voters.
"There is an issue there with Democrats being very open to the idea of voting for a Republican chief executive," said Eberly.
For instance, going into the 2006 race, Democrats had 21,000 more registered voters than Republicans in Howard County, yet O'Malley won there by fewer than 700 votes.
"We didn't turn out our base," said McPherson, regarding the 2006 results in Howard County.
"Many of our people thought he (O'Malley) could win without them turning out to vote," he said. "There's a certain amount of lethargy in a certain amount of the electorate. And our thing is how do you overcome that? And that's something we'll be focusing on."
Nationwide, turnout could be a problem for Democrats in 2010.
"The two groups that are indicating the most interest are Republicans and independents. The group that is expressing the least interest to vote is Democrats," Eberly said. "Independents right now are expressing a clear preference for Republicans. You can't say it's necessarily because they're endorsing the Republican ideas. It's more the Republicans are the folks who aren't in power. They're the only other choice."
Gimpel said the continuance of economic slumps on the state and national levels under Democratic leadership may discourage many Democrats in 2010.
Discouraged Democrats are a group he predicts "will just stay home from the polls even if they don't go quite so far to the other side so as to vote for the other party," Gimpel said. "I think even compared to previous off-year elections you can bet on a lower turnout."
More than anything, before Republicans can be competitive in 2010, they need solutions to the state's budgetary problems.
Chris Cavey, chair of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee, said Republicans should make the public's agenda their agenda.
"You have to look for the direction that the public is going to go and you need to give them a plan that you can say, 'Go in that direction.' And then you need to stay on that message. 'The economy is bad because of blank. We feel this will fix the economy.' And then you need to stay on that message and not stray from it," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.