Monday, August 23, 2010

Brian Murphy: A Bang or a Whimper?

For a couple months now, my political friends and I have been trying to handicap how much of the vote gubernatorial long-shot candidate Brian Murphy will attract in the GOP primary. I have heard estimates ranging from 9 percent up to 35 percent.

Today, Center Maryland released a poll that shows Murphy polling in the low end of the range:

The poll also shows 11 percent of likely GOP primary voters as being undecided. Assuming 2/3rds of these votes break against Bob Ehrlich – which is how undecided voters usually break when a challenger faces an incumbent, and Ehrlich is the incumbent in the nomination race – Murphy’s numbers could reach if not top 20 percent.

Before the poll, I predicted Murphy would reach 22 percent in the primary. I am sticking by that prediction for three reasons:

1) Murphy has no chance of beating Ehrlich in the primary. Ehrlich’s supporters know that, and may therefore be less likely to vote on September 14th. By contrast, Murphy’s supporters fall into two basic groups: 1) die-hard supporters; and 2) people who plan to vote for Ehrlich in November but want to send him a message in the primary. Both may be more motivated to show up at the polls.

2) Murphy has reached out to three key single-issue voting constituencies among the GOP base: 1) pro-life voters; 2) gun owners; and 3) anti-illegal immigrant voters. Passions run high among all three groups, whose voters seem more of a natural fit for social conservative Murphy than social moderate Ehrlich in the GOP primary.

3) The other statewide race which may mobilize GOP voters is for the U. S. Senate, where Harford County conservative Jim Rutledge is facing moderate doctor turned Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Eric Wargotz. I believe Wargotz (for whom I briefly worked) would be a stronger candidate to stand against incumbent Senator Barbara Mikulski. But I also believe Rutledge’s supporters are so passionate about their candidate that they may be more inclined to show up and vote. This may, in turn, benefit Brian Murphy, whose supporters shares some synergies with Rutledge's supporters.

Despite the fact that Ehrlich remains a popular figure among state Republicans, he has some fences to mend among those who remain upset about tax, fees, and spending increases when he was governor, as well as his stance on issues like stem cell research. It is not clear the extent to which Ehrlich’s campaign team recognizes this as a problem.

Asked about conservative unrest back in 2006, Bernie Marczyk – the campaign’s then-and-again Political Director – responded, “Where else are they going to go?” The answer to that question was, “Not to the polls,” as GOP turnout dropped five percent in 2006 compared to 2002.

Murphy’s primary performance will be the first clear indication as to how giant the hole in the fence is. If Murphy peaks at around 20 percent, I think Ehrlich survives the perception game. If Murphy does defy expectations and polls 30 percent of the primary vote, Ehrlich has big problems.

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