Thursday, July 12, 2012

What Might Have Been...

Recently Center Maryland columnist Josh Kurtz wrote a column looking back at the epic 2002 primary battle between then-legislators Mark Shriver and Chris Van Hollen, who competed for the Democratic nomination to challenge Eighth District GOP Congresswoman Connie Morella.

Van Hollen won that contest, of course, and went onto defeat Morella in November. Shriver left politics, joined the nonprofit “Save the Children,” and published a book about his father, Sargent Shriver.

I found the “what might have been” angle taken by Kurtz, who had some kind words to say about me in another previous column, intriguing. It invites all sorts of alternate history ponderings.  

So I decided to apply the same perspective to someone from my own political past.

What would have happened had Bob Ehrlich not run for governor in 2010, and instead opted to run in 2014 instead?

I suppose one could answer that question in two ways.

Under the optimistic scenario, Ehrlich would have run more competitively than he did in 2010. Eight years of O’Malley fatigue, and the fact that no incumbent will be running in 2014 (no incumbent Democratic governor of Maryland has lost since 1950) would have worked in Ehrlich’s favor, as well as the fact that the possibly four-way Democratic gubernatorial primary has the potential to be a fractious, divisive affair.

Under the pessimistic scenario, Ehrlich would suffer the same fate he did in 2010, even if by a less dramatic margin. Maryland is far more Democratic than it was in 2002, and the Democrats have new resources – including early voting – which they effectively deployed to deliver their voters to the polls even in an unfavorable year such as 2010. What’s more, Ehrlich would again be running on the same record which the Democrats used against him twice.

I’m torn between these scenarios, I suppose. But I can envision a specific set of circumstances in which an Ehrlich political comeback could have been plausible.

To do that, I look to the career of the politician who waged the greatest comeback in recent history: Governor Jerry Brown of California.

Think about it. Brown left the California governor’s office in 1982, and waged a quixotic campaign for president in 1992. But people regarded “Governor Moonbeam” as a relic of the 1970s, and opted for Bill Clinton instead. Brown's career seemed effectively over. 

Brown’s comeback did not begin until he went back to the bottom of the ladder and started his climb all over again.

Brown ran for mayor of Oakland – a city with a lot of poor people and entrenched problems – and won. Earning a reputation as an innovator, he then successfully ran for Attorney General of California. By 2010, he had skillfully positioned himself to glide back into his old job, something that seemed impossible just a decade before.

Brown’s improbable climb makes me wonder what would have happened had Ehrlich ran not for governor, but for Congress in 2010 – specifically the First District seat now held by Andy Harris.

If Ehrlich had announced a congressional bid, I believe Harris would have either deferred to Ehrlich or been easily defeated by him in the primary. Ehrlich would have easily won in November, and his victory would have earned him “comeback kid” status in both Maryland and Washington.  

Additionally, he would have returned to a Congress with a fresh Republican majority.  No doubt Ehrlich could have negotiated with House leaders to reclaim his seniority and his seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he likely would have chaired a subcommittee.

Ehrlich would have been reelected to Congress in 2012, in a district drawn to be the state’s token GOP congressional district.

Had Ehrlich done these things, a politically reinvigorated Ehrlich would be well-positioned to run for the open gubernatorial seat in 2014 or for U. S. Senate - his original aspiration - when one of the incumbents retires. 

But a comeback’s success hinges upon two factors: The right timing, and the right opportunity.

Ellen Sauerbrey battled Parris Glendening to a virtual draw in 1994. But when she ran against incumbent Glendening in 1998, he beat her handily – despite the fact that Sauerbrey actually out-fundraised Glendening.

This outcome was strong evidence that a gubernatorial comeback by Ehrlich in 2010 was the wrong opportunity at the wrong time.  

Consequently, even though 2014 promises to be a change election cycle, the Maryland GOP’s predominant figure in a generation must now watch it from the bleachers.

Had Ehrlich waited, I have no doubt he could have defeated any of the frequently mentioned GOP candidates for governor in 2014.

By taking the strategic long view, Ehrlich could have been the GOP’s Cal Ripken, Jr., the “Iron Man” of Maryland politics.

But by jumping into an unwinnable election, Ehrlich looks more like Shoeless Joe Jackson – a decent guy who, because of a bad decision compounded by unfavorable circumstances, exhausted his opportunities to play even though his heart is clearly still in the game.  


  1. Ehrlich wouldn't have run in 2014 so that wouldn't even have been a plausible scenario. He needed to defeat O'Malley to avenge his loss and hoped to use that comeback to launch a national career, possibly as VP on a Giuliani or Romney ticket.

    A huge ego may be a prerequisite for any politician (or their spouse) seeking higher office, but it also blinds them when they surround themselves with those who tell them what they want to hear.

    A position with a Romney administration seems to be the fallback plan now even though that is being publicly spoken about.

  2. Hi Anon:

    I agree with pretty much everything you said. The grudge match side of it clouded Ehrlich's judgment, along with encouragement he received from handlers with their own agendas.

    I can see Ehrlich getting something in a Romney Administration if Mitt wins. But, I can't imagine the Dems wouldn't bring up the robocall scandal during Senate confirmation hearings.

    Running for Congress would have given Ehrlich a chance to change his story. By insisting on running in 2010, he positioned himself as yesterday's candidate.