Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ehrlich vs. O'Malley: Black Voter Turnout Is The Ballgame

During the past few days, the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post have published stories addressing what I regard as the decisive factor in the gubernatorial race: black voter turnout.

Simply put, African Americans make up about 29 percent of the state’s electorate. Further, they are the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency. When black voters are energized and engaged in an election in Maryland, the Democratic candidate – no matter what office he or she is running for – wins.

This year, however, the dismal turnout in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County during the primary raises doubts as to whether black voters are, in fact, energized and engaged.

O’Malley won 88 percent of the black vote in the 2006 election with 23 percent turnout. In 2008, black voters in Maryland almost unanimously backed President Obama with 25 percent turnout. With GOP voters and conservative-leaning independents highly motivated to vote this year, conventional wisdom dictates that black turnout must at least come close to where it was in 2006 for O’Malley to win again.

In some respects, 2010 is more a repeat of 1998 than 2006.

In 1998, unpopular Democratic Governor Parris Glendening again faced GOP challenger Ellen Sauerbrey. Glendening’s approval rating had fallen under 50 percent, and there was a perception that Sauerbrey’s voters were more motivated to show up at the polls.

But Glendening won on Election Day by a 10 point margin. Black voters rallied to him for two reasons. First, President Clinton energized the black electorate by making a televised appearance at a black church in Baltimore the weekend before the election. Second, Democrats successfully, if unfairly, portrayed Ellen Sauerbrey as someone black voters should fear.

Twelve years later, O’Malley has some of the same advantages Glendening had – as well as a few he didn’t.

Both Presidents Obama and Clinton will be stumping for O’Malley. Further, O’Malley has the state’s new early voting program, along with a state Democratic Party with the resources and the manpower needed to take full advantage of it. O’Malley’s approval rating – 54 percent according to the most recent Rasmussen poll – is higher than Glendening’s at the same point in the 1998 race.

But what O’Malley lacks is the fear factor.

Convincing black voters to support O’Malley is one thing, but trying to make them scared of Bob Ehrlich seems an impossible task. As a former governor, Ehrlich is a known quantity. Even in 2006, polls showed that Ehrlich still managed to achieve respectable approval and likability ratings among black voters even as they voted against him.

Turning Ehrlich into an ogre may seem like a silly notion, but I have no doubt that the wily and capable Democratic operatives who populate Maryland’s political landscape will try anyway.

One avenue of attack they may exploit is a news story which appeared in the May 19, 2006 issue of the Baltimore Sun. Kelly Brewington reported that then-Congressman Ehrlich penned a letter to the IRS in December 2000 requesting that they investigate the political activities of the NAACP.

Making the story even more interesting is that Ehrlich wrote that letter at the request of his Campaign Finance Chairman, Dick Hug. And, the staffer who managed that request for Ehrlich: Special Projects Director and one-time reputed political hit man, Joe Steffen.

Joe Steffen is a friend of mine, so I asked him if he remembered Hug’s request.

"I brought up my concern that Dick Hug was not a constituent, but Bob told me flat out - 'It's Dick Hug.  Just send it (the letter) in and see what they (the IRS) say.’” Steffen told me.  “It was a set of very political decisions and at the time I think Bob would have done anything Hug wanted - even if that meant stepping on the territorial toes of a fellow congressman."

The perception that Ehrlich and Steffen unleashed the IRS against a revered, locally-headquartered civil rights organization at Hug’s request is the kind of thing that the Democrats will certainly exploit in such a competitive election year.

This election year, black voter turnout is the ballgame.  Both sides will have to cope with that reality. In Ehrlich’s case, it will be through the shadowy activities of political operative Julius Henson, said to be involved in “voter outreach” efforts for the campaign in Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Things will continue to be interesting. Along the way, I suspect they will get a little ugly, too. 


  1. Richard, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the wisdom of Ehrlich announcing education cuts this close to the election? If AA voters are the key to the election, why would he deliver on a silver platter an issue to fire up the vote? I believe Ehrlich, frustrated over the beating he is taking in the Washington suburbs lost his temper. I get that he thinks this may be liked by his base, however it seems awfully careless.

  2. Anon @ 10/7 @13:33:

    I give Ehrlich credit for offering specifics as to how he's going to pay for the sales tax cut. That said, the O'Malley campaign - which already has an ad up in DC attacking Ehrlich on his education record - is going to savage him for it. So, I admire the candor but question the political wisdom.

    I'm one of those people who thinks cutting the sales tax is a loser issue for Ehrlich. Most people see the sales tax increase as simply an annoyance. I don't see reducing it as an issue that gets people fired up the way there were, for example, in 1994 when Sauerbrey campaigned on income tax reductions. Also, I don't think anyone seriously believes he has a chance in hell of getting it through the legislature.