Friday, October 8, 2010

In Maryland, Can Ehrlich Halt the Slide?

Though I stand by my recent critique of the Washington Post poll that showed Martin O'Malley with an 11 point lead over Bob Ehrlich, the latest statewide survey from Rasmussen Reports shows that Ehrlich has clearly lost momentum in the race. I believe the reason is O'Malley's aggressive and effective advertising campaign. Every morning as parents are getting their kids ready for school or daycare or otherwise prepping for the day they are treated to a number of positive ads touting O'Malley's support for education funding and even more hard hitting negative ads linking Bob Ehrlich to corporate interest and, brazenly, attacking Ehrlich for tax and fee increases during his tenure and for a 72% electricity rate hike by BGE.

O'Malley could be called to the mat on many of these issues, but especially on the issue of tax increases and the BG&E rate hikes.  On taxes, it is astonishing that O'Malley has chosen to run against Ehrlich on that issue. Though Ehrlich did preside over increases in titling fees, a new flush tax for the Bay, and a small property tax increase, O'Malley called a special session of the General Assembly in 2007 and substantially increased the state sales tax and the income tax. But the ads and claims have gone largely unanswered. With regard to BG&E, Ehrlich inherited a rate increase that resulted from poorly crafted legislation. The General Assembly had imposed a multi-year rate freeze on BG&E and that freeze expired in 2006. BG&E responded by raising rates to market levels. During the 2006 campaign, Martin O'Malley pledged to "take on" BG&E and halt the rate increases - even running campaign ads based on the pledge.

In the end, however, for all of the sound and fury the BG&E rate hike went into effect under Martin O'Malley's newly elected administration. The Ehrlich campaign has produced a video refuting the BG&E claims by O'Malley - but good luck ever seeing the ad on TV.

O'Malley clearly enjoys a cash advantage in this race and he has used that advantage to run a very effective ad campaign that has driven Bob Ehrlich's negatives higher. Everyone knew this would be a race decided by 4 points here or there and the O'Malley team knew that they just needed to raise doubts in the minds of the small group of undecided voters. Recent surveys suggest that they have done just that. The question now is whether the Ehrlich campaign has the time and the resources to effectively counter the O'Malley machine. They have to hope that it's not already too late.

The candidates have agreed to two debates so far, the first of which will air on Oct. 11. Ehrlich needs to bring his best game and appeared passionate and engaged. He needs to remind voters of his recently released Roadmap 2020 and enunciate a clear vision for the state - something he failed to do in 2006. If he fails to do that, he may not be able to recover. O'Malley tends not to connect well with voters in formal events and he needs to avoid sounding rehearsed or detached.