Every election year, it seems, there’s a race that catches the political set in Washington by surprise. It’s possible that we’ve already seen the 2014 version of this with the defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor, a result few anticipated and fewer still predicted.
Maybe it’s a race that we’re already watching – the Senate contests in Kansas or Georgia – or where the surprise hatched early. Perhaps it’s one of the gubernatorial races in New England – Connecticut or Massachusetts – where polls suggest the race is tight but where a victory by the Republican would still count as a mild surprise. Or Illinois? Maybe even Hawaii? Each of those races is in the “toss-up” column on RealClearPolitics, so while results could surprise nothing would be truly shocking.
The same cannot be said for the gubernatorial contest in Maryland. Most handicappers have it squarely in the “likely Democrat” column and for good reason.
Barack won Maryland in 2012 by 26 points – a one-point improvement on his impressive win there in 2008. Despite the Republican wave of 2010, with the GOP picking up seats in the unlikeliest places, Governor Martin O’Malley won reelection by nearly 14 points. And he defeated Governor Bob Ehrlich, who remained popular in pockets of the state and, at the very least, had strong statewide name identification.
Other more recent signs are even more ominous for Free State Republicans. A New York Times/CBS/YouGov online poll two weeks ago found that Maryland was one of only three states in which Barack Obama has an approval rating above 50 percent. Maryland, at 55 percent, gave Obama better marks than any other state in the union.
And yet there are signs that the governor’s race in Maryland is more competitive than it should be. Voters in the state are being bombarded by harsh ads attacking the Republican, Larry Hogan. Watching the ads, which come from the campaign of Anthony Brown, the Democrat, and the Democratic Governor’s Association, one might think Hogan actually opposes all birth control and favors gun violence. (Questions to the DGA about the veracity of its ads went unanswered.)
Beyond that, heavy hitters from both political parties will be visiting the state in coming days. Barack Obama will be campaigning for Brown in Upper Marlboro on Sunday. And THE WEEKLY STANDARD has learned that New Jersey governor Chris Christie will campaign for Hogan on Tuesday.
Why the attention on a state that should be safe? Perhaps it’s just part of the typical pre-election mindgames the political parties play as they try to trick the opposing party into throwing away good money on bad candidates. Money the DGA spends in Maryland is money they’re not spending in, say, Wisconsin or Florida.
Or could it be that Barack Obama just wants to campaign … somewhere? With his approval ratings at near-presidency lows, Democrats across the country are running away from Obama virtually everywhere. Obama, who once boasted that he was the most-requested Democratic politician in the country during the 2006 midterms, is being encouraged to stay away even in states that he won in 2012. When Senator Jeanne Shaheen was asked recently on NBC whether she’d like the president to come campaign for her, she shifted awkwardly in her chair and explained that she was sure he had enough crises to attend to elsewhere that he’d be better off spending his time in Washington. So maybe Obama just wants to be involved.
It’s also possible that Martin O’Malley, the current Maryland governor and near-certain presidential candidate, wants to boost Brown’s vote total because he thinks a big win for his successor will boost his political prospects. O’Malley has made no secret of his ambitions and he’s run deep blue Maryland for years as sort of the progressive dream state – with taxes on things that were not thought taxable (rain), early trendsetting moves on social issues (guns and gay marriage), and new spending that would make Nancy Pelosi proud. Brown, who served as O’Malley’s lieutenant governor, is running for what many observers see as O’Malley’s third term. A blowout of Hogan under these circumstances might help O’Malley deflect questions about the fact that Maryland is in bad shape after eight years of his governance.
But we at least have to entertain another explanation. Maybe with three weeks until Election Day, the Maryland race is more competitive than most anyone thought it would be. There’s evidence for that, too.