Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley cruised to a second term Tuesday - and with it, won the opportunity to guide the state in what he hopes will be an improving economy - while Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. suffered a second consecutive statewide defeat, leaving his political future in doubt.
The much-anticipated rematch between the Maryland political heavyweights began as a dead heat, but polls in recent weeks had shown O'Malley pulling away from his longtime rival. Defying a national Republican surge, the Democrat appeared on track late Tuesday night to beat Ehrlich by a wider margin than during their initial race in 2006.
O'Malley took the stage at his Election Night celebration in Baltimore about 10:40 p.m. to thank voters for sending him back to Annapolis.
"The people of Maryland decided once again that we move Maryland forward," the 47-year-old former Baltimore mayor thundered, repeating his campaign theme.
Flanked by his wife, Katie Curran O'Malley, and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, he highlighted his work in protecting priorities such as the Chesapeake Bay and public education even as he cut the state budget amid declining state revenues.
"We're not out of the deep hole," he said. "But we are coming back. " Tonight we chose a better future for the children of Maryland."
Ehrlich, addressing supporters at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, congratulated O?Malley.
"We wish him well and the state well," the former governor said. "This is our state."
Toward the end of the campaign, O'Malley had taken to calling Maryland a - bright spot - for Democrats in an election season that saw many in the party facing tough reelection battles.
Maryland, home to more than twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, also re-elected Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Comptroller Peter Franchot, both Democrats, and affirmed the party's majorities in the House of Delegates and state Senate.
O'Malley's campaign manager said Democrats nationally might consider Maryland - a success story to be studied. "A lot of incumbent Democrats are doing very poorly," Tom Russell said. "People will be looking to see what was the difference here."
Voter turnout was -right in line- with other recent gubernatorial elections, said deputy elections administrator Ross Goldstein. About 60 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, either on Election Day, absentee or, for the first time, during six days of early voting.
Ehrlich's defeat in what was a good year for his party elsewhere could send the state's most popular Republican, a 52-yearold who held elected office for two decades, into political retirement. Ehrlich has said in recent days that he was unlikely to run for office again if he lost.
In 2006, O'Malley rode an anti-Republican wave to best Ehrlich by 6.5 percentage points. After leaving office in January 2007, the former governor managed a Baltimore law office and hosted a talk-radio show with his wife, Kendel.
Republican wins in Virginia, New Jersey last fall and Massachusetts in January, coupled with negative reverberations about President Barack Obama and the national health care debate, stoked Ehrlich?s interest in a return bid.
Kendel Ehrlich nudged her husband into the race, the former governor has said, and she said Tuesday that she had -no regrets.- "He ran the campaign that he wanted to run," she said. "This was the year to do it." In a state with overwhelmingly Democratic registration, Ehrlich's chances hinged on voters being willing to put aside their party affiliation, said his campaign spokesman, Henry Fawell. "We always knew this would be a high-wire act in Maryland," he said.
After seeing a disappointing turnout in the September primary, Democrats got to work activating their base for the general election. O'Malley brought Obama to Bowie and former President Bill Clinton to Baltimore in October. And O'Malley's greenshirted troops deployed in force last month to encourage early voting in the Democratic strongholds of Prince George's County and Baltimore City.
The strategy appeared to pay off: In early voting, Prince George's residents favored O'Malley to Ehrlich by a 10-to-1 margin. As the votes were counted last night, O'Malley seemed able to keep the race close in Republican- friendly Anne Arundel County and in Ehrlich's native Baltimore County. And the governor won handily in liberal and populous Montgomery County.
In a blitz of last-minute pep rallies and speeches across the state, O'Malley called his four years as governor -miserable.
hard, really difficult years.- State unemployment has doubled since he took office, mirroring a nationwide trend. The governor has emphasized that Maryland, blessed by its proximity to Washington and federal jobs, is creating jobs at a faster pace than most states.
Still, he said, he would like to have -two nickels to rub together- to work on progressive priorities such as prison re-entry programs. Judy Duvall, 67, said she selected O'Malley because she thinks he's "done a great job."
After casting her vote at an Annapolis elementary school, the former state employee said she "didn't like" the way government worked under Ehrlich.
"I thought that he was vindictive," she said, recalling that some workers were asked about their party affiliation.
Ehrlich, who served as governor from 2003 to 2007, launched his comeback bid in April with a series of small-business roundtables meant to highlight what he described as the perils of Democratic policies as the state and nation struggled through a sluggish economy.
The former governor said that he was running out of "a real sense of concern about the direction our state is taking." When O'Malley refused to pledge not to raise taxes if re-elected, Ehrlich warned of increases.
Outside a Howard County polling place, Ed Queen, 33, an instructional designer for the Johns Hopkins University, said he voted for Ehrlich because he believed in the challenger's ability to manage the state budget.
"It seemed like he did a good job running the state," Queen said. "I'm not sure why he didn't win four years ago.?
Throughout the summer, polls showed the two candidates in a close race, and national political analysts called the race -a toss-up.-
O'Malley, speaking outside a Columbia polling place Tuesday, said he stayed true to his campaign message of embracing progressive values during tough economic times even as polls showed him tied. Russell said the O'Malley team thought Ehrlich "was going to run a very simple, nationalized campaign about jobs and taxes, like their signs said."
Instead, as the campaign wore on, Ehrlich began hopscotching from topic to topic: health care, immigration, problems at the state labor agency, outstanding feuds from the 2006 election.
O'Malley said his challenger asked the wrong question when he quoted Ronald Reagan: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago"?
"We're all worse off," O'Malley said, noting the national recession. "The question is, is Maryland moving forward- ahead of other states?
The rematch between O'Malley and Ehrlich appeared to be less expensive than their first contest four years ago.
O'Malley has raised money throughout his four-year term in Annapolis, and he spent about $12 million this year on his reelection bid, Russell said. Ehrlich began raising money in the spring and spent about $8 million, spokesman Fawell said. Both spent millions more four years ago. The Democratic Governors Association, of which O'Malley is vice chairman, and the Republican Governors Association each poured about $4 million into the race. Like television viewers across the country, Marylanders were subjected to a barrage of negative advertising. O'Malley attacked Ehrlich's credibility on taxes and his ties to big business; one radio spot linked him to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill while several called the former governor a "lobbyist," something Ehrlich said was not his job description.
Ehrlich, meanwhile, said O'Malley had not delivered on electricity rate reductions and accused the governor of "makin' stuff up" and also "coverin" stuff up."
In other statewide races, Franchot handily defeated Republican challenger William Henry Campbell to win a second term as comptroller. Gansler drew no competition for his re-election bid for attorney general. Franchot and Gansler made appearances at O'Malley's victory celebration at the American Visionary Art Museum.
Miles north, the mood at Ehrlich's watch party was anxious, and then somber. In his concession speech, Ehrlich expressed disappointment, but said "we are competitors and competitors fight."
Midway through Tuesday, Ehrlich accompanied his parents to their polling location in Arbutus. At the time, he said he had no gut feeling about whether he'd win or lose.
"It's a very difficult time," Ehrlich said. "There's angst on the street, there's a lot of hurt. In the last midterm election, it was all about Iraq. Now it's jobs. This is a hard Democratic state - the bluest of the blue. But we left office with very high approval. The real issues are about the economy. That issues agenda works to our advantage."