There’s a small group of potential Republican presidential candidates you don’t hear much about, though they speak at events along with better-known candidates. They don’t have exploratory committees or campaign staffs. They’re one-man bands. But what they do have are impressive records. This group includes John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, ex-Virginia governor Jim Gilmore—and Robert Ehrlich, the former governor
When Ehrlich, 57, spoke at the New Hampshire Republican Leadership Summit in April, he announced: “I don’t have media people.” Nor was he a featured speaker, chosen to address a lunch or a dinner at the two-day event.
Ehrlich had a somewhat different message—bad news followed by good news. If you add up the popular votes cast in the last six presidential elections, Republicans trail Democrats by 26 million votes. That was the worst of the bad news. That Republicans have much to claim credit for, including a path to immigration reform, was Ehrlich’s good news.
As a politician, he had the misfortune of being a Republican in Maryland, one of the most Democratic states in the country. Yet he was elected to the state house of delegates in 1986, then to the U.S. House in 1994. In 2002, he defeated Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to become governor. He won by luring blue-collar Democrats away from Kennedy.
He was a controversial governor, which is the fate of any Republican elected statewide in Maryland. The legislature, then and now, is overwhelmingly Democratic and highly partisan. Ehrlich drove Democratic legislators crazy, especially when he vetoed a bill requiring Walmart to spend at least
8 percent of its payroll on employee health care. His veto was overridden, but the law was later struck down by a federal judge.
Ehrlich’s tough-minded style drew national attention. “It was his governorship of a deep blue state that caught my eye,” former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani wrote in the foreword to Ehrlich’s book, America: Hope for Change, published in 2013. “He transformed a huge budget deficit to surplus, passed Maryland’s first charter schools bill, and wrote the historic Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act. Quite a record for a Republican outnumbered 3 to 1 in one of the most liberal legislatures in the country.”
His record didn’t save Ehrlich’s governorship. He lost his bid for reelection in 2006 to Martin O’Malley. And lost again in 2010 when he challenged O’Malley, currently a Democratic presidential candidate. Ehrlich is now a lawyer in Washington with King & Spalding. He and his wife Kendel hosted a Saturday radio show from 2007 to 2010.
Ehrlich was prompted to consider running for the GOP nomination when he was invited to New Hampshire last September to talk about his book. He spent two days in the state and has returned five times. “It’s been interesting,” he says. “We’re taking a pretty serious look at” running.
He’s found New Hampshire to be congenial. “If they like you, they let you know,” Ehrlich says. “If they like you, the invites come, and they are coming.” He’s traveled to a half-dozen other states, including New York and Ohio.
At the leadership summit last month, he described the downside of Obama’s presidency. Obama has “defined exceptionalism down.” Democrats have a single solution to the weak economic recovery: Spend more money. “It’s never enough,” Ehrlich said.
As for Republicans, they fail to emphasize accomplishments such as the Medicare prescription drug program, the balanced budget agreement in 1997, school choice programs, and the refusal to pay unemployment benefits after 99 weeks, which spurred an increase in the labor participation rate.
On immigration, Ehrlich says Republicans agree on key issues. They want stiffer border security, reject the idea of mass deportation of illegal immigrants, favor more educated immigrants with skills, would require illegals to pay back taxes, learn English, and meet other conditions, and insist they go to the back of the immigration line to gain legal status. Full amnesty with citizenship? That’s in dispute.
His strength as a candidate, Ehrlich says, is his appeal to blue-collar Democrats. He grew up in Arbutus, a working-class suburb just across the Baltimore city line. His father was a car salesman, his mother a secretary. Ehrlich won a scholarship to Gilman, a top private school, then went to Princeton, where he captained the football team, and law school at Wake Forest.
In an unexpected turn, Ehrlich’s days as a rarely noticed candidate may be over. After rioting broke out in Baltimore last week, he became a frequent commentator on Fox News and CNN.