Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What To Make of Murphy's Showing

The question many people in political circles have been debating for the past few weeks now has an answer: 24.

That’s the statewide percentage of the primary vote Brian Murphy attracted in his challenge to former Governor Bob Ehrlich. Guessing Murphy’s percentage of the vote has been a popular parlor game among politicos like me. Leading up to the election, I heard numbers ranging from 11 percent (this was the number Team Ehrlich was allegedly circulating) up to 35 percent (Blair Lee suggested this in a recent column, although I think his motivations were somewhat Machiavellian).

For the record, I predicted he'd get 22 percent, and am reasonably satisfied by the fact that I came close to the mark.

Murphy’s strongest performance was in Western Maryland and Allegany and Prince George’s counties, where he broke 30 percent of the vote.  His poorest showing was in Baltimore and Harford counties – the nucleus of Ehrlich’s old congressional district – where he only got 18 percent.

I think Murphy’s performance constitutes a mixed bag for Ehrlich, as there are both positive and negative aspects of it to report.

The good news is that Ehrlich – the personification of an establishment Republican – prevailed overwhelmingly in a year where Tea Party forces took out another establishment Republican in neighboring Delaware. Congressman Mike Castle, a former governor and the state’s at-large congressman, lost his U. S. Senate bid to another Sarah Palin-sanctioned candidate. From a spin perspective, Ehrlich’s solid victory juxtaposes nicely with Castle’s loss.

Also good news for Ehrlich is the fact that Murphy met, but did not exceed, expectations. Most objective politicos I have talked to conceded that Murphy was likely to break 20 percent. Everyone remembers the “Fustero Effect” in 2002, when Kathleen Townsend was embarrassed by a no-name candidate who won 20 percent in the Democratic primary despite not waging any sort of campaign. Well, Brian Murphy did wage a spirited if low-budget campaign, and even managed to win Sarah Palin’s support. Still, he barely managed to improve over Fustero’s performance. The lack of any real surprise gives pundits less to talk about.

The bad news for Ehrlich, of course, is the fact that almost one in four primary voters chose to vote for someone else. This should give Team Ehrlich pause, especially given the fact that Ehrlich is such a known commodity. People knew exactly who they were voting for, and who they were voting against.

Moving forward, the Ehrlich campaign would be wise to engage these voters in an attempt to win back their active support. Simply assuming that they will climb back on the Ehrlich bandwagon in November because – to paraphrase Bernie Marczyk, Ehrlich’s political director – they have nowhere else to go would be foolhardy.

Republican primary voters are finicky creatures.  Sometimes, they will refuse to vote for a candidate they deem to be ideologically impure. We witnessed this in 1998, when Ellen Sauerbrey ran to the center in order to broaden her appeal. After the election, Bob Ehrlich himself showed me polling data which showed that many conservatives were alienated by Sauerbrey’s attempts at political moderation. So many chose not to vote at all, even though sitting out the election effectively helped reelect the unpopular Parris Glendening.

It will be interesting to see if Team Ehrlich treats the Murphy phenomenon as a problem to be fixed, or an aberration to be ignored. To date, they have run a classic coronation campaign. But the political landscape of 2010 requires them to adapt to new realities. Yesterday’s playbook probably won’t work this time.  And if you don’t believe me, just ask Ellen Sauerbrey.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, as usual. Additionally, it appears that Brian Murphy was humble and gracious in defeat, reaching out to the victor with an immediate endorsement... He conducted himself with class, both before, and after the campaign. It is now up to Team Ehrlich to do the same...

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