Josh Kurtz: Murph the Smurf

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Imagine a candidate for governor who is young, handsome and wealthy, an entrepreneur, the ultimate political outsider, with hard-line, conservative positions on illegal immigration and taxes and abortion. Now imagine he's been endorsed by Sarah Palin, the one Republican folk hero out there. Wouldn't you think, in this throw-the-bums-out election year, that he'd have a pretty good chance of winning the Republican nomination?

Welcome to Maryland, Brian Murphy, where political logic is often turned on its head, and where the state Republican Party has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bob Ehrlich for so long that the man on the street would be hard-pressed to name another Maryland Republican, even if you offered him $1,000.

Murphy is a young, handsome businessman running for governor of Maryland as the ultimate political outsider. He's got hard-line conservative positions on a range of issues and a surprising endorsement from Sarah Palin in his pocket.

And in a recent poll conducted for Center Maryland by OpinionWorks, he could not top 13 percent in a head-to-head Republican primary match-up with Ehrlich.

Whether the question was asked of all GOP voters, probable voters or certain voters, Murphy was stuck at 13 percent. Ehrlich topped 70 percent among all three categories of Republicans.

This is interesting and significant for a variety of reasons.

The name Robert Fustero haunts Maryland Democratic insiders of recent vintage. He's the grocery bagger who took 20 percent of the vote against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary without spending a dime -- an early warning sign, which proved correct, that Townsend might have trouble with Ehrlich in the general election.

Just a couple of days before I saw the Center Maryland poll results, I talked to two valued Republican sources about Murphy and his potential. One, a political insider and strategist, said he'd be watching Murphy's primary percentage closely and that a showing of 35 percent would be not just a warning signal for Ehrlich, but a death knell -- and he did not completely discount the possibility of that happening.

The other Republican, a grass-roots conservative activist, said that while Murphy's positions were certainly to the right of Ehrlich, the neophyte candidate had not done enough to cultivate conservatives and should not be taken seriously.

Food for thought -- and possibly totally meaningless now that Murphy has clocked in at 13 percent in the poll. Thirteen percent! With all that potential upside, that's not even Fustero territory.

Murphy could bring some of those numbers up. He could unload more of his own money into late TV ads. Palin could come in and campaign for him (don't hold your breath). The immigration issue could yield unforeseen dividends. More likely, though, Murphy will struggle to reach the Fustero Line.

If nothing else, it's a testament to the hold Ehrlich has had -- and continues to have -- on Maryland Republicans. Since Ehrlich's election to Congress in 1994, the state GOP has been a cult of personality with one man -- Ehrlich -- at its center. Who knows? If Ehrlich was more "we" instead of "me" -- even though he frequently speaks in the third person -- he might have reached out to Brian Murphy, an appealing guy with political promise, and talked him into running for state comptroller or some other attainable office.

The prospect of Ehrlich losing in November must be scary for Maryland Republicans, because they've invested so much in the man and have no place to turn when he exits the stage. Of course, he may not exit the stage. Mark my words, even if Ehrlich loses to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in November, someone will be talking about him making a political comeback in a matter of months.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The Center Maryland poll reveals that Ehrlich may not lose -- in fact, he has a pretty good chance of winning. The first head-to-head numbers between Ehrlich and O'Malley look pretty good for the Democrats -- O'Malley was leading, 48 percent to 40 percent. But that's among all likely voters surveyed. When you get to voters who say they are certain to go to hte polls in November, the race is effectively tied, with O'Malley at 45 percent and Ehrlich at 44 percent.

This shows that the intensity among Republicans is way higher than it is among Democrats -- a situation that follows the national trend. And that's a great big sign of danger for O'Malley and his fellow Democrats. All the evidence points to this being a very good November for Republicans from coast-to-coast.

Back at this point in 1998, Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening was running roughly even in the polls with his Republican challenger, Ellen Sauerbrey. But in the final weeks of the campaign, Democrats found an effective attack line against Sauerbrey, and at the national level, it improbably became a Democratic year because voters disliked the fact that Congressional Republicans were trying to impeach President Bill Clinton. Glendening wound up winning by 10 points.

It's possible that Democrats will find an effective line of attack against Ehrlich this fall, and it's also possible that voters will perceive national Republicans as overreaching in their attacks on President Barack Obama and other Democrats. But that's an awfully thin reed for O'Malley and his allies to hang their hopes on.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

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.