Josh Kurtz: Bob and Weave

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Say this for former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) as he makes his final calculations about running for governor: no matter what he says, no matter what he does, whether it’s on April 7 or some other day — the man has staying power.

He captured the imagination of Republican insiders when he first won a Baltimore County legislative seat in 1986, at age 29, and he’s stayed there ever since. He has, single-handedly, kept hope alive for a generation of Maryland Republicans. Without him, the state GOP would be, hard as it is to fathom, in even worse shape than it is now.

It’s a shame they haven’t cloned him: Ever since gliding to Congress with breathtaking ease in 1994, Ehrlich has been the one person who party leaders have wanted to run for Senate or governor every election cycle. He’s disappointed them as often as not; a shrewd political tactician, Ehrlich has wisely sensed when it was too strong a Democratic year for a Republican to prevail in Maryland.

So, if all the media accounts and scuttlebutt is to be believed, Ehrlich this year has concluded he can win, concluded that there is enough animus toward Democrats nationally and in Maryland that he can exact revenge on the man who defeated him four years ago, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

But really, for Ehrlich to win again, lightning will have to strike twice, won’t it?

Ehrlich was elected governor in 2002, a great year for Republicans. But he also had the benefit of running against one of the most inept campaigns in recent memory, and at a time when voters seemed determined to punish Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) for every sin of Parris Glendening (D), real and imagined. Whatever the national dynamics this year, whatever the voters’ opinions of O’Malley come November, you can take it to the bank that the incumbent governor will not be the pushover Townsend was.

If Ehrlich is going to win this time, he’s going to have to win ugly — and he knows it. But maybe that’s fitting — it’s already an ugly political year anyway — everywhere.

Ugly not only fits the mood of the kind of conservative voters Ehrlich will need to rile up to win, it fits the mood of the candidate and some of his closest confidantes, who feel he was never given a fair shake by the media and the Democrats who have controlled Annapolis for longer than anyone can remember. Ehrlich left office pretty popular even though he lost to O’Malley by 6 points in 2006, a Democratic year. So maybe, if he reminds voters what they don’t like about O’Malley and the Democrats — higher taxes, just for starters — it’s all he’ll need to win.

But that in and of itself is pretty thin gruel. Can Ehrlich offer more? Last time, he offered himself and his attractive young family as a kind of package — the Bawlmer boy next door made good, the kind of guy you want to have a backyard barbecue and talk sports with.

But he has otherwise struggled to present a rationale for electing him that reaches people down deep. On the campaign trail in 2002, he had winks and nods for his adoring fans, as he talked about “breaking the monopoly in Annapolis” and his determination not to wither under attacks from “Mr. Shrum” and “Mr. Fleischmann.”

Huh? Who?

The monopoly? Oh right, a reference to Democratic rule! Mr. Shrum? Ah, that would be Bob Shrum, the Kennedy family consigliore who drove many a campaign, including KKT’s, into the ground. Mr. Fleischmann? You mean Alan Fleischmann, KKT’s self-appointed protector (who by the way also had a major hand in Kathleen’s dysfunctional campaign)? This is someone worth campaigning against?

It remains a mystery who Ehrlich thinks he is reaching with this kind of talk on the campaign trail. And it will be interesting to see what insider references he drums up this time, to the amusement of a few and the befuddlement of many.

If Ehrlich prevails in November — and he just might — it will be a very ugly four years in Annapolis. When he won in 2002, Ehrlich thought his eight previous years there as a legislator, coupled with his jock bonhomie, would smooth the way.

But he insulted his old buddy, House Speaker Mike Busch (D), almost from the get-go, and he didn’t fully anticipate the partisan buzz saw that is Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D). Ehrlich thought understanding Baltimore and its environs would be enough to govern the state; he didn’t realize how big and powerful and complex — and completely Democratic — Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are.

Well, if Ehrlich returns, Miller and Busch will still be there. Prince George’s and Montgomery are bigger and badder than ever. And they’ll all be ready to rumble over the thermonuclear topic of redistricting. Combine that with the fact that Ehrlich and his people will be looking for vengeance, and we’re in for some very, very combustible times. Let’s hope Maryland’s very real needs aren’t forgotten in all the skirmishing.

Josh Kurtz is senior editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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