One advantage of having a late primary as Maryland does is the lack of downtime between the primary and the campaign — the survivors don’t have to wind the machine back up from a primary fight months before once Labor Day rolls around. Instead, winners tomorrow get to keep their campaigns cranked up in high gear for another seven weeks.
But the late primary also gives the losers a role. In a divisive fight, the winner has to quickly convince supporters of the loser that they need to get onboard with his or her effort. Generally, those who succeed in November are the ones who gathered the united front shortly after the primary by soothing the wounds deflated supporters of the losing campaigns inflict by a crushing defeat.
Political prognosticators in Maryland didn’t give upstart GOP candidate for governor Brian Murphy much of a shot in yesterday’s primary — as a high-water mark they thought he could get 1 out of every 3 Republican votes, and in two of Maryland’s 23 counties Murphy indeed reached that number. (Statewide, Murphy received just a shade under 25 percent.) But there were over 100 rabid Murphy supporters packed into a meeting hall outside Annapolis Sunday who believed the Brian Murphy/Mike Ryman ticket could pull off their own “Maryland Miracle,” including Murphy himself. Here is where the story of the Maryland Republicans’ fate this fall will be told.
Murphy’s campaign has been treated like a red-headed stepchild by the Maryland Republican Party, which climbed upon the bandwagon of former Governor Bob Ehrlich early on; even before he formally announced in April, state party leaders decided to scrap the national Republican rule (Rule 11) about taking sides in contested primaries. The move, which was unpopular among conservative activists, freed resources for Ehrlich’s campaign and doomed Murphy’s bid to one which relies heavily on street-level support. Even with backing from such conservative heavyweights as Sarah Palin, the Family Research Council, and state-level pro-life and pro-Second Amendment groups, Murphy still worked at a considerable disadvantage. “I just want the endorsement of 160,000 Maryland voters,” said Murphy in a post-rally interview.
It’s now clear that Ehrlich had the money, media, and party backing advantages which propelled him to a primary win. But at what cost?
Former Maryland Republican Party chair Jim Pelura was an early backer of Murphy, and helped the upstart candidate with getting the word out early on. “I’ve never seen such a grassroots campaign as this,” he said at the Murphy rally Sunday. Since few elected officials or candidates embraced the Murphy bid, the field work was done by individual voters, many of whom are new to politics.
One example of that devotion is Murphy volunteer Lin Coombs, who drove up from Silver Spring to attend the event. Recounting that she’s new to politics — “I’ve only been involved for eight months” — the former independent voter explained how she switched to the Republican Party solely to vote for Murphy and conservative U.S. Senate candidate Jim Rutledge (who also lost yesterday.) “I’m going back (to independent) even if they win,” she said.
Coombs ticked off a laundry list of complaints about Ehrlich and politics in general: both Ehrlich and current Governor Martin O’Malley continually raised her property taxes, they both turn “a deaf ear” to the illegal immigration problem in Maryland, and her belief that there’s no difference between the two parties. The Maryland GOP “epitomizes the fact your vote doesn’t count” by backing Ehrlich, she added.
It’s those voters who are fairly new to politics but were drawn to Murphy’s conservative platform that Bob Ehrlich and the Maryland Republican Party risk alienating. Doubtless the conservative wing of the party is already less than enamored with current party chair Audrey Scott and her “I’m party over everything” statement caught on video recently, but the relationship may be strained farther because of their treatment of Murphy, who bashed both Ehrlich’s “largest spending increase in state history” and O’Malley’s “largest tax increase in state history” on the front page of his website.
And when I asked him if he was planning to stay active in the Maryland Republican Party win or lose, Murphy abruptly shook my hand and walked away. The raw nerve struck in Murphy by my question may elicit the same reaction from a number of people who have become involved with the Republican cause via the Tea Party. And since Democrats already hold a 2:1 registration advantage over Republicans in Maryland, it’s clear that Ehrlich needs to win over the bulk of the independents along with more conservative Democrats in order to reclaim Government House.
But Murphy’s share of the vote shows it might be difficult for Bob Ehrlich to tack far to the center (and presumably attract independents, according to conventional wisdom) without the risk of losing the vote he needs in those outstate counties to combat the huge losses he’ll incur in Democratic strongholds along the I-95 corridor. In 2002, Ehrlich won the governorship by winning Maryland’s rural counties in the western part of the state and along the Eastern Shore with roughly 2/3 of the vote, but ran 5 to 10 points behind that pace when he lost in 2006 to Martin O’Malley.
With the experts calling this the year of prime pickup opportunities for Republicans, a winning strategy requires getting all hands on deck. Now it’s Bob Ehrlich’s job to play the gracious winner and keep selling the conservative side of his platform in the seven weeks remaining until the election.
More importantly, if Bob Ehrlich wins in November he will need to govern as a conservative. If he doesn’t, the already weak Maryland Republican Party may be dealt a fatal blow as conservatives mull over the merits of a third party or simply flee the state. The Maryland GOP has cast Ehrlich in the role of its savior, but winning this battle over Brian Murphy and his supporters could still lose the war for them.