Josh Kurtz: Take Me Back to Old Virginny

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In the past five months, Republicans have enjoyed three major victories at the polls: winning gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, and the special election in Massachusetts to replace the late, great Sen. Ted Kennedy (D).

Former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) has, understandably, taken comfort in all three results. If the environment for Democrats in November is every bit as toxic as it was for them during these three elections, then Ehrlich stands a very good chance of winning his old job back — and he knows it. If even one of those seats had remained in the Democratic column, chances are Ehrlich would have passed on a rematch with Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) this year.

Ehrlich has said that of those three GOP success stories, he sees the most parallels between New Jersey and Maryland, where last fall Chris Christie (R), a former U.S. attorney, ousted incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine (D). It’s easy to see why Ehrlich would think this: Christie’s victory was less a personal triumph than it was a case of voters repudiating Corzine and Democratic rule in the state capital.

Ehrlich regularly rails against “the monopoly” in Annapolis. In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-1, he’s careful not to say “the Democratic monopoly.” But his message is clear: I’m an agent of change, he is telling voters, while O’Malley and all the entrenched interests that support the Democratic governor represent the status quo.

As O’Malley’s record in office is decidedly mixed — he certainly has not fulfilled the promise (or shown the kind of flash) he had at the beginning of his term — Ehrlich’s argument will no doubt appeal to some voters. It’s easy to blame the Democrats for the state’s woes, because they’ve been in power for so long.

But after 20 years in elective office, Ehrlich can’t really plausibly present himself as a true outsider. And so much of Ehrlich’s electoral appeal remains personal rather than political. So much as he looks to Christie’s victory as a model for 2010, Ehrlich seems a lot more like new Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who ended eight years of Democratic rule in Richmond.

McDonnell masked a fairly conservative record in the state legislature and as Virginia attorney general with a boy-next-door appeal. McDonnell grew up in Northern Virginia and clung desperately to those roots, even though that region, which once was a lot like the rest of the state, is far more of a liberal stronghold today than it was when McDonnell was coming of age in the 1960’s and '70s — and even though he no longer lives there.

Claiming Northern Virginia bonafides helped mitigate his conservatism in the public’s mind — and also brought out a kind of nostalgia in all corners of the state for a time when a guy like Bob McDonnell could feel comfortable growing up in Northern Virginia, before the region was heavily populated by liberals and Latinos and Asians.

There’s a similar kind of nostalgia associated with Ehrlich, the boy next door from Arbutus who made good but never forgot where he came from — indeed, never really felt the need to understand the universe beyond his Baltimore County backyard (even though he’s moved to Annapolis, in much the same way that McDonnell migrated first to the Tidewater region of Virginia and then to the Richmond area).

Forget the urban ills that all but killed Baltimore City. Forget the polyglot Washington suburbs to the south. Ehrlich is a throwback to a simpler time, when Johnny U. was throwing bullets at Memorial Stadium, when the O’s were always in contention, and when a muscular manufacturing base powered the state. And his jocular persona, like McDonnell’s, helps mask his own conservatism.

Looking for more similarities? The two were football heroes in high school. And now they have good looking families and very well-kept hair.

Maybe that’s a superficial way of looking at things. But why not? All too often in politics, superficiality trumps all. Both Ehrlich and McDonnell have been the beneficiaries of this phenomenon, in ways the corpulent Chris Christie never was. And there’s no reason to believe, in Maryland, that it couldn’t happen again.

Josh Kurtz is a managing editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.