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Martin O’Malley’s First Presidential Primary

His name isn’t on Tuesday’s ballot, but his future is

***

Martin O’Malley, like any other politician, wants to be liked. And he’s trying really hard. This election cycle few have worked harder on behalf of the Democratic Party in states across the country than the Maryland governor. But many in the party have greeted O’Malley with little more than a shrug. As the 2016 presidential race launches the moment the Tuesday polls close, he’s attracting little interest nationally and—if it even seems possible—even less interest from his own constituents.

O’Malley’s failure to resonate as a national figure might come as a surprise to your everyday liberal activist familiar with only the governor’s vaunted résumé. As mayor of Baltimore he earned a tough-on-crime reputation and then turned around and banned capital punishment as governor, claiming the practice was “wasteful and ineffective.”

He signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in 2012 and then successfully campaigned to reject a ballot initiative that would have overturned it. He raised gas taxes, legalized medical marijuana, passed gun control and a state version of the DREAM Act, and led Maryland’s schools to five consecutive years at the top of Education Week’s rankings. And despite his liberal policies, Maryland didn’t become some high-tax business-repelling backwater—the state’s unemployment rate has remained steadily below the national average throughout his tenure, and the state’s median household income consistently ranks in the country’s top three or four. He has cultivated a reputation as a manager and a problem-solver, but also a social justice Catholic.

Those who wonder why O’Malley’s long, not-so-silently-harbored national ambitions remain stuck in first gear need only look to his speeches. His most high-profile speech to date, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, was considered a flop that included a contrived chant of “moving America forward, not back” that never got the audience going. As the New York Times recently described it, O’Malley’s delivery style can seem “inauthentic, almost hammy.” Not even his hand- chosen successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, seems able to get moving. He’s stuck in a close race with Republican Larry Hogan in a state that’s only had two GOP governors in 55 years—and one of them was Spiro Agnew.

***

On a crisp October afternoon just days before Election Day, O’Malley is in full campaign mode. The two-term Democratic governor is on the mall of the University of Maryland, pleading with college students to vote.

Martin O’Malley needs the votes almost as badly as Anthony Brown.

If O’Malley stands any real chance at a presidential run—and it’s a slim one to begin with—then this Tuesday’s election in many ways is his first primary. His name might not be on the ballot, but his legacy certainly is, and perhaps his whole future. After all, if he can’t get his hand-picked successor elected in a reliably Democratic state, how much will anyone want to hear from him on the national stage?

O’Malley For America begins with Brown For Maryland. But he doesn’t say any of that on the campaign trail.

Instead, he tells about 50 students gathered for a get-out-the-vote rally organized by College Democrats that turnout is critical this election—and it couldn’t be clearer whom young people should cast their votes for: Anthony Brown.

O’Malley is dressed in blue jeans and a navy Under Armour polo shirt, untucked—attire that seems to have become the casual uniform of politicians in the state that is home to Under Armour’s headquarters and produced its CEO. And in quintessential O’Malley style, he’s making his case with a guitar in hand.

“So sing, sing at the top of your voice / Love without fear in your heart,” O’Malley sings, performing alongside a student band named the Tomato Dodgers. “Feel, feel like you still have a choice / If we all light up, we can scare away the dark.”

A few passersby seem a bit taken aback by the governor strumming a guitar outside the library, but for those who know O’Malley it’s a sight that is nothing out of the ordinary. He’s fronted his own Celtic rock band since 1988, and the group—O’Malley’s March—still books concert venues a few times each year, including at the 200th anniversary celebration of the “Star Spangled Banner” this past September. (They’ve also performed at the White House.)

The lyrics to this particular song by the English folk rock singer Passenger are ones the potential 2016 presidential candidate is particularly fond of. “I like that song,” O’Malley told me. “I think it kind of expresses a big portion of the zeitgeist in terms of the national consciousness. And it seems to be one of those songs where the words speak to people and speak to the hope and the optimism that each of us have.”

***

During a recent appearance in Iowa for get-out-the-vote efforts, O’Malley quoted, but did not sing, the same chorus as he urged Democrats to go knock on doors. For a man facing the conclusion of his career in Maryland politics come January, O’Malley has spent a fair amount of time in Iowa, as well as other presidential primary battleground states. He has said he is “seriously considering” a bid for the White House in 2016 but “probably” won’t decide until his successor takes office.

Who that successor will be is a much more open question than it seems like it should be.

Brown, considered a shoo-in win for Democrats a few months ago, has seen his advantage over his Republican opponent drop to the single digits in recent polls. Days before the election the Cook Political Report declared the race a “tossup.” Hogan owns a commercial real estate business and served as the secretary of appointments in the administration of O’Malley’s longtime GOP rival, former Gov. Robert Ehrlich. His father was a U.S. congressman. Hogan’s campaign message has been simple and focused: O’Malley raised taxes, Brown will raise taxes, and businesses and the middle class will suffer.

An ad dropped into the race by the Republican Governors Association cites O’Malley and Brown for giving Marylanders an “electricity rate increase, a transit fair increase, another tax on gasoline, higher income tax rates, a tax on mortgages, a rain tax, a flush tax, higher cost for healthcare, for being born, for dying, trips, slips, fishing, flip flops, tube socks, purses, roller skates, license plates, PJs, diapers, wipers, caps, hats and book bags.” Anthony Brown, the ad states, would be the “second string for O’Malley’s third high tax term.” Images of Brown and O’Malley, both wearing dark suits and red ties, appear in the ad. Hogan’s name is never mentioned, seemingly stating, “Anybody but these two.” Meanwhile, O’Malley’s approval rating has dipped to 40 percent, and a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found 70 percent of registered Maryland voters do not think O’Malley would make a good president.

“The Republicans have been trying to tag Brown as essentially the third O’Malley term,” Donald Kettl, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, says. “They’ve been trying to tie the two of them together.” The attacks linking Brown to O’Malley aren’t unlike ones Brown faced from his two opponents in the Democratic primary, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Delegate Heather Mizeur.

“I think it comes with the territory,” O’Malley says when I ask about efforts to make this election about him. “The truth of the matter is, because of the big financial mess that I was left by Ehrlich and Hogan, who was in charge of all of his political appointments, I had to make a lot of singularly unpopular decisions in order to not only maintain our AAA bond rating but more importantly build up the best public schools in America.”

The Republican strategy appears to be working. In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, and which President Barack Obama carried with nearly 62 percent of the vote in 2012, a Baltimore Sun poll published Oct. 11 showed Brown with only a seven-point lead and his supporters less committed to him than Hogan’s supporters are committed to their candidate. Another poll, released Oct. 27 by a Republican PAC and conducted by the nonpartisan Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, found Brown leading Hogan 46 percent to 44 percent. That narrowing gap has surprised a number of political observers.

“There is a bit of O’Malley fatigue in the state, there’s no question about it,” says Donald F. Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Larry Hogan has had one message and one message only, and he’s been hammering away at that message and Brown has not countered it. I don’t understand that at all.”

Brown hasn’t been quick to mention O’Malley’s name on the campaign trail, and the two partners of eight years have had few joint appearances. As Hogan’s campaign has maintained a focus on economic issues, the Brown campaign has sought to suggest Hogan is a candidate of extremes and inject some of the hot-button social issues that are known to drive Democratic turnout. They’ve focused on his endorsement by the NRA and views Hogan held on restricting abortion when he unsuccessfully ran for Congress in the 1980s and ’90s, despite the fact that Hogan has said as governor he would not meddle with existing state abortion laws.

Yet Democrats in Maryland have faced a different electoral climate this year; many of the cultural

issues that might turn off voters who typically lean Democratic from voting for a Republican have been resolved in Maryland. And unlike the last election cycle, which had same-sex marriage and in- state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants on the ballot, there are no measures expected to drive voters to the polls. Except, perhaps, a perceived referendum on O’Malley himself.

“Should the voters reject that, it would be a serious piece of damage to O’Malley as well, because observers would certainly see it as a referendum on O’Malley himself,” Kettl says.

Should Hogan win, he would become just the third Republican governor of Maryland in nearly 50 years. Spiro Agnew, who later became Richard Nixon’s vice president but was forced to resign due to tax evasion charges, defeated a segregationist Democrat for governor in 1966. In 2002, U.S. Rep. Bob Ehrlich won election against an unpopular Democrat—Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the lieutenant governor of Parris Glendening and daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. Ehrlich’s running mate, Michael Steele, became the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland. In 2006, O’Malley defeated Ehrlich, despite the Republican governor maintaining a 55 percent approval rating among likely voters.

Four years later, the two men—whose disdain for each other was often difficult to miss—faced off again. O’Malley defeated Ehrlich by an even larger margin during a Republican cycle, and Ehrlich retired from Maryland politics. But to this day, Ehrlich’s win in 2002 gives Republicans— increasingly marginalized and outnumbered in the state—hope that they can make lightning strike twice, particularly as O’Malley’s term comes to a close with 52 percent of Marylanders saying the state has gotten off on the wrong track, according to a recent Goucher Poll.

“The lieutenant governor is a difficult position sometimes. You can’t run from your boss, as much as you try,” Ehrlich, who now works at the law firm King & Spalding, told me. “I saw some of that with Townsend. You see some of that here with Brown as well. It’s one of the reasons lieutenant governors rarely win.”

Since the Maryland lieutenant governor position was established in 1970, no occupant of the office has ever gone on to become governor. Ehrlich has shied away from commenting on O’Malley’s administration since the 2010 election, saying his complaints were litigated with voters four years ago, but he has been vocal in his support for Hogan. “I think the relentless tax increases in particular have caught up to them—finally,” Ehrlich says before letting out the kind of boisterous laugh that helped lend him the good old boy, slap on the back persona he’s known for. “Maryland might be a blue state, it might be a liberal state, but if you’re middle class you’re still nervous. And I think you see that in the electorate.”

The close polls have led national political figures to barnstorm the state.

Democrats, wishing to assuage concerns over voter turnout, have descended on the state. President Obama campaigned with Brown in heavily African-American Prince George’s County, and Hillary Clinton, who was endorsed for president by both O’Malley and Brown in 2008, appeared at a campaign event on the University of Maryland campus. Bill Clinton has campaigned with Brown, and Michelle Obama is expected to as well. Brown, a Harvard Law School graduate and Iraq war veteran who currently holds the rank of colonel in the Army Reserve, would be Maryland’s first African-American governor.

“The Democrats are using every arrow in their quiver,” Norris says. “They’ve got tons of money. They’ve got lots and lots of boots on the ground. They’ve got a really good get-out-the-vote campaign, and they went negative early and they’ve stayed negative.”

Republicans are firing all their arrows too. During his fourth campaign appearance on Hogan’s behalf over the weekend, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who harbors his own 2016 ambitions, taunted the man who might just be facing him in the next November general election. “Governor Marty O’Malley said he’s nervous. Well, I want to look right at the camera and talk directly to my friend Marty,” Christie said. “Hey Marty, don’t waste your time being nervous. Just get ready to clear out your office and turn it over to Larry Hogan.”

The crowd of Hogan supporters loved it, and Christie didn’t let up. “I mean, don’t you just love it? Big, bad Marty O’Malley. Big, big taxing Marty O’Malley. Big spending Marty O’Malley. And in two days, big loser Marty O’Malley and Anthony Brown,” he said.

Rhetoric aside, the odds still favor Brown. At this time in 2002, Ehrlich was polling four points ahead of Townsend—a position Hogan doesn’t command. And O’Malley is confident that Maryland voters will look at the totality of the choices—popular and unpopular—that had to be made. “I think most Marylanders will conclude at the end of the day and come Election Day that we have improved the odds of our kids being able to succeed in a changing economy,” he says. “Marylanders understand the connection between education and economic opportunity—in other words, the more a person learns the more a person earns, and the better that is for all of us. At least, that’s what they concluded four years ago.”

But it appears increasingly clear that even should Brown win, his margin of victory will be far smaller than he, or O’Malley, would like. A narrow win—even perhaps a narrow loss by Brown— could ultimately stop O’Malley from pursuing a presidential bid and perhaps even challenging Hillary Clinton in the primaries. He’s been positioning himself as a Democratic alternative for months, publicly butting heads with the Obama administration and taking a more compassionate approach to issues such as deportations. Yet running in 2016, and especially potentially challenging a Clinton juggernaut, seems particularly quixotic if he’s leaving the governor’s office without being loved enough in his home state to power his successor over the finish line. But he might do it anyway.

“I wouldn’t count the guy out,” says Len Lazarick of MarylandReporter.com, the dean of the Annapolis press corps, who first began covering the state capital in 1976. “You look at what he’s done—he’s only lost one race, and that’s the first race he ever ran. I wouldn’t discount his political skills.” After O’Malley narrowly lost that first race for the Maryland Senate in 1990, he was elected to the Baltimore City Council the following year. In 1999, he defeated several strong African- American candidates and was elected mayor in a predominantly African-American city.

He’s been told before by the party faithful to wait his turn while a female member of a popular Democratic family carried the banner forward instead—and he’s seen how that’s turned out.

In 2002, he was only halfway through his first term as mayor of Baltimore, and state Democratic leaders begged O’Malley not to run for governor. Senators Barbara Mikulski, whose first Senate campaign O’Malley worked for, and Paul Sarbanes broke a tradition of staying neutral in party primaries and endorsed Townsend. O’Malley ultimately chose not to challenge Townsend, avoiding the need for a Democratic primary. Five months later, Ehrlich defeated Townsend by more than 66,000 votes, becoming the first Republican governor in the state in nearly four decades.

Announcing he would not run for governor in June 2002, O’Malley noted “a vacuum of leadership” in the state Democratic Party and the race for governor. His decision not to run, he said, was “the most difficult political decision of my life.” He said he had “carried a lot of water for this donkey” and would support the Democratic nominee in the fall, without ever mentioning Townsend by name.

In the weeks ahead, O’Malley will have to weigh a number of factors before he makes his decision about 2016, not the least of which is the outcome of Brown vs. Hogan. But, in the end, the question boils down to this: If the voters of Maryland aren’t even enthusiastic about him, does Martin O’Malley have more water he wants to carry for this donkey?

Originally published by POLITICO Magazine.

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