Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In Maryland, Echoes of 1970 and 2002 as O'Malley Faces a Primary Challenge

I have argued recently that Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley is vulnerable to a challenge from former Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich. That vulnerability stems from national political trends that are boosting Republicans and state financial woes that are hurting Democrats. But news that O'Malley will face a primary challenge - a credible primary challenge - from George Owings III, a former legislator from Southern Maryland and former state secretary of veterans affairs only serves to boost Republican chances. Owings served in the Ehrlich administration and will run a right of center challenge to O'Malley. Given current national trends and Maryland's budget woes, such a strategy may be effective. An examination of recent gubernatorial elections in Maryland shows that Republicans perform best when the Democratic party is neither unified nor enthusiuastic about its candidate. Only time will tell if the Owings challenge weakens O'Malley. It is very likely that this challenge will influence Ehrlich's decision whether or not to run against O'Malley in 2010 - I suspect that it will encourage Ehrlich to seek a rematch with the man who defeated him in 2006.

Josh Kurtz makes a solid argument over at Center Maryland that the Owings' challenge is real and poses a true threat to O'Malley. Kurtz makes agood analogy to 2002 when a grocery store clerk named Robert Fustero took 20 percent of the vote in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend - revealing Townsend's many weaknesses. Kurtz predicts that Owings will do better than Fustero and inflict serious harm to the O'Malley effort. I agree and will make a different comparison - to 1970 and the race for the Senate in Maryland.

It's hard to not see some parallels forming between the 2010 gubernatorial race and the 1970 senatorial race in Maryland. In 1970, incumbent Democrat Joseph Tydings was seeking re-election and facing a challenge from Republican J. Glenn Beall, Jr the son of the man he had defeated 6 years prior. As the incumbent, Tydings enjoyed the support of the Democratic Party, but he faced a primary challenge from George Mahoney, the Democratic nominee for Governor in 1966. Mahoney was a conservative Democrat – a Dixiecrat – and challenged the liberal Tydings from the right. As expected, Tydings won the primary, but lost the three counties in Southern Maryland and lost the Eastern Shore – then, as now, those regions represent strong pockets of conservative Democrats. Mahoney also did well in the working class areas of Anne Arundel and Baltimore Counties and ran surprisingly strong in Howard county. Tydings’ loss in Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore and his weakness in other areas revealed a weakness with important elements of the Democratic party in Maryland. In the general election Tydings lost to Beall. In the end, Tydings won the three key Democratic strongholds of Prince Georges and Montgomery counties, as well as Baltimore City but suffered losses is rural and working class regions of the state - losses that were foretold by his seemingly comfortable 53% to 38% victory over Mahoney in the primary. Beall defeated Tydings by a scant 50.7% to 48% in the general election – proving that winning Prince Georges, Montgomery, and Baltimore City can only take a candidate so far.

Coming back to 2010, Owings hails from Southern Maryland and spent 16 years in the legislature. He is a credible candidate who will likely draw his greatest support from the same areas of the state as Mahoney in 1970. The question for observers of a possible O’Malley/Ehrlich contest is not whether Owings defeats O’Malley (he won’t) it’s how well he runs outside of the Big Three areas and what that can tell us about divisions within the Democratic party’s rank and file. If Owing’s can crack 20% in the primary O’Malley’s days are likely numbered.