A Conservative Postmortem on the Maryland Governor’s Race in Election 2010

–Richard E. Vatz

Psychologically, but not politically, it is always better to lose by a lot than a little. The “what-if’s” can drive a reasonable man or woman insane (if one believes in insanity).

So what might have made the Maryland Governor’s election a closer race, that doesn’t include strategies that the author never recommended (which therefore would constitute “Monday Morning Quarterbacking”)?

Personally, some of my concerns seem to have been borne out. To win back the Governor’s office from a Democrat in Democratic Maryland, one needs issues that give Maryland voters hope for relieving problems about which a majority of them are worried, some high-profile Democratic defectors who provide “reluctant testimony” in favor of a challenger, and an intent focusing on the weaknesses of the incumbent and the strength of the challenger. This last item, necessary due to the uninformed nature of the electorate, was accomplished, but only in the latter stages of the election.

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I think the issues were there: high taxes, high unemployment, and effective strategies ignored by the incumbent and recommended by the challenger during his tenure as Governor (e.g., slots). People don’t understand that virtually all legislative economic decisions are zero-sum game decisions. When universities in the University System of Maryland hold students harmless from tuition rises, faculty salaries are frozen, department budgets are slashed, programs are cut, etc. Especially when there is no journalistic coverage of such issues, it seems as if it is an undiluted benefit for Maryland citizens.

A note about press coverage: all issues involve the important rhetorical factor of press coverage. This, in its most elemental form, comprises what is covered and the interpretation of what is covered.

I disagree with some of my colleagues on the quality of press coverage of this election, perhaps because I think that while The Washington Post maintained a prevailing bias against Gov. Ehrlich on its news pages and editorially, The Baltimore Sun‘s improvement from 2002-2008 was extraordinary. Did The Sun allow the Democrats to dictate many of the issues that were covered? Yes, but again the improvement in interpretive fairness was significant, to say the least.

The Sun‘s editorial page improved as well. Their prevailing bias against Gov. Ehrlich was maintained, but their thumb-on-the-scale was very significantly attenuated from the pseudo-journalism years of editor Dianne Donovan and Friends. Their op-ed page was drastically improved, but it was far from even-handed. Still, recall that in 2006 there were no articles the entire election year favorable to Gov. Ehrlich.

There were no high-profile defections from the Democrats — their unity was critical. In the Democratic City States’ Attorney primary race, Gregg Bernstein was supported by many African-American leaders, nullifying the racial component of the contest, and the campaign rhetoric from Patricia Jessamy supporters seemed to damn with faint praise. Add to this mix the genuine fears for residents’ physical safety should Jessamy win, and the low Baltimore City turnout led to a Bernstein victory, thank goodness.

In the Governor’s race, there were neither any major defectors nor did the Gov. O’Malley supporters seem to lack the courage of their convictions. My nightmare, predicted on Baltimore media, came true: Baltimore County Commissioner Jim Smith with accompanying County-wide likeability would in a professionally impressive manner issue encomiums to Gov. O’Malley and critique Gov. Ehrlich. What I didn’t anticipate was that such ads would be ubiquitous.

All in all, this was not a winnable race for Gov. Ehrlich. Were there mistakes that should have been foreseen? Perhaps, but in Democratic Maryland and Democratic, Smith-worshipping Baltimore County, a Republican challenger cannot win with convincing arguments but no Democratic turncoats and no major newspaper support.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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