When Larry Hogan folded his tent last week and said he would not run for governor because he expected former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) to do so, it was taken as a given: Ehrlich’s running.

A couple of days later, the Maryland Democratic Party filed a complaint against Ehrlich with the Federal Communications Commission, saying he had violated federal law when recently he went on Channel 45 in Baltimore and said favorable things about someone his law firm represents. Regardless of the merits of the complaint, it was a shot across the bow – a sign that Democrats not only expect Ehrlich to run, they wanted to remind him of how unpleasant they’re going to make things for him.

As Election Day grows nearer, as the political picture grows bleaker for Democrats at the state and national level, it seems almost inevitable that Ehrlich is going to run. If a Republican can win Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, then surely a popular guy like Ehrlich in this environment can win his old job back, as the man who replaced him, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), struggles with impossible budget deficits and national Democrats flub every important issue. Right?

Well, maybe. But first Ehrlich has to decide whether he really wants to run. Sure, he’s competitive, and many people around him would love for him to exact revenge on O’Malley and Democrats in the legislature. And he’s definitely moved closer to running in recent weeks, saying he’ll announce his decision in March.

But parse some of the things he’s said about running, and you have to wonder, especially his observation that he wants to be sure the people really want him. From a guy who is notorious for not working all that hard, that sounds like genuine doubt — or at least like he’d really prefer for the brass ring to be handed to him on a platter. Which, of course, the Democrats are not going to do. And why shouldn’t he have doubts about what the people want? The last public poll on an O’Malley-Ehrlich match-up, while hardly bursting with great news for O’Malley, showed the incumbent with a 9-point lead.

So let’s go against the conventional wisdom here and suggest that, bad as things look for Democrats right now, Ehrlich, for a whole host of reasons, probably has a better chance of being elected governor in 2014. Here’s why:

• An absence of Democratic unity. Assuming O’Malley wins in November, he won’t be able to run for a third term in 2014. At least three very ambitious pols — Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, state Comptroller Peter Franchot and state Attorney General Doug Gansler — will be competing for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination that year. It will be messy, and expensive, and will expose any number of Democratic fault lines — racial, geographical, generational, ideological. The Democratic primary won’t take place until September, giving the party just six weeks to heal its wounds and unify before the general election. The winner will be bloodied and broke heading into the general election.

By contrast, despite what the primary challenges this year of former Del. George Owings and (possibly) former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry may represent, Democrats and the interest groups that support them are fairly unified behind O’Malley. This is particularly true in an election year that takes place just before the next round of redistricting. Disparate Democrats do not want Bob Ehrlich or any other Republican drawing Congressional and legislative district lines in 2012.

So whether they’re enthusiastic or holding their noses, whether their constituencies love him or hate him, they’ll turn the vote out for O’Malley this fall. Think Parris Glendening (D) in 1998 — most Democrats couldn’t stand him, but they pulled together and gave him a 10-point victory after he barely won (and some say he lost) four years earlier. Redistricting is the great Democratic unifier.

• Money. O’Malley has $5.7 million in the bank, a functioning political apparatus and a fairly organized state party. Ehrlich has almost nothing in the bank, and the state GOP is a disaster. Ehrlich has kept his “boys” around him since leaving office, and is capable of raising a lot of money quickly. But O’Malley’s head start in the financial arms race may be too big for Ehrlich to overcome.

• An uncertain national political environment. National Republicans sure wish Election Day were tomorrow. There’s certainly the promise of a very good showing for the GOP in Congressional elections, in gubernatorial elections, and at the local level. Barack Obama’s sheen is tarnished, and Congressional Democrats are afraid of their own shadows, uncertain of what they stand for and incapable of leading. Bad political news is snowballing for the Democrats, as Republicans recruit good candidates and Democrats in competitive districts choose to retire rather than fight for seats they once won easily.

Republicans, with some justification, compare this election cycle to 1994, when a young gifted Democratic president struggled to pass his agenda, and the GOP won a historic number of House and Senate seats, seizing control of Capitol Hill. And it could happen again, without a doubt.

But the Republican wave of 1994 only first came into view a few weeks before Election Day, even though there were many tell-tale signs ahead of time. Most national Democrats were caught napping — something that won’t happen this time. And in this era of 24-7 cable news, the Internet and fickle voters, who’s to say the pendulum won’t swing back, at least slightly, to Democrats come November — despite their best efforts to screw everything up? Sure, Ehrlich could ride a Republican wave to victory. But the wave may be looking a lot smaller come November.

• The political dynamic in 2014. Hard as it is to predict what this fall will look like, it’s even harder to know what politics will be like in 2014. Maybe President Sarah Palin will be gearing up for her first midterm elections, but more likely, Obama will take his lumps this November and win a second term in 2012. So by 2014, voters will be feeling the traditional six-year itch that frequently plagues the parties of the president who is nearing the end of his second term. So good as this year’s environment looks for the GOP at the national level, 2014 could be even better.

And in Maryland, if O’Malley wins re-election in 2010, he’ll be nearing the end of his second term in 2014. Even if the economy improves, even if O’Malley is finally able to get some signature programs through, voters will be suffering from O’Malley Fatigue. In a Democratic state like Maryland, Democratic governors have frequently followed Democratic governors, to be sure.

But think of the last few we’ve had: Harry Hughes was sure a lot different than Marvin Mandel. William Donald Schaefer was sure a lot different than Hughes. Glendening was quite the contrast to Schaefer. But when Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who was closely associated with Glendening, tried to succeed him, she lost badly — though that wasn’t the only reason why she lost.

If Anthony Brown is the Democratic nominee in 2014, he’ll be closely associated with O’Malley, to his detriment. And while Franchot and Gansler have had their differences with the governor, ideologically they are not that different, so it’ll be hard for either to plausibly represent a huge break from the status quo. So if voters are looking for a new direction then, who better to offer it than Ehrlich?

• Ehrlich and the GOP. There is only one celebrity Republican in the entire state of Maryland: It’s Bob Ehrlich. But Ehrlich’s record of party building has been spotty. He shows up at events and fundraisers, but sporadically. If he runs for governor this year, his presence on the ticket will boost some candidates down-ballot, but he’ll be focused on his own race, not on building the party.

It may be that Ehrlich — and the state GOP — would be better served if he spent the next four years truly piecing together a party infrastructure, when he — and candidates from Oakland to Pocomoke City — can truly reap the benefits.

Politics is situational. The Democrats are on their heels, and Ehrlich may be able to end Martin O’Malley’s political career this fall. That’s strong incentive to run. But the GOP isn’t going to build a strong stable of gubernatorial contenders in the next few years. Ehrlich will still be their strongest candidate in four years — and the conditions for victory may be even better then than they are now.

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

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation