Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said Tuesday he will challenge Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley in November’s election, setting up a rematch between Maryland’s two biggest political foes.

“Within the last two months, I arrived at this decision after an awful lot of thought,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

The former governor said that for a long time after losing his 2006 re-election bid to Mr. O’Malley, he believed the state had shifted to the far left. He said he often expressed doubts he would run in 2010. Maryland is a tough state for the GOP in statewide races because Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registration by a 2-1 margin.

But Mr. Ehrlich noted that he sensed a change last year, and he mentioned Maryland’s economic struggles as key reasons why he wants to run because “there is a real sense of concern about the direction our state is taking.”

“Clearly, the environment did change in 2009, and I first became aware of that through independent poll results that were given to me,” the former governor said.

Mr. Ehrlich, 52, declined to comment in detail about polling results or fundraising, but he said the poll numbers “were good enough that we’re having this discussion here today.”

For now, Mr. Ehrlich is significantly behind in fundraising. The campaign for Mr. O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown reported having about $5.7 million on hand in January. Mr. Ehrlich reported a cash balance of $141,778 in January, but aides have pointed out Mr. Ehrlich waited until March 2002 to announce his plans to run in that year’s race, and that didn’t harm fundraising efforts then.

The state’s economic condition will be a key issue. Mr. Ehrlich cited a doubling of unemployment over the past four years, $1.4 billion in tax increases approved in 2007 at the urging of Mr. O’Malley, and the state’s budget deficit, which Mr. Ehrlich said “has reached very dangerous levels.”

Mr. Ehrlich, who became Maryland’s first Republican governor in a generation in 2002 when he defeated then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has been testing the waters for months by traveling around the state to meet with voters.

In Maryland’s 2006 governor’s race, Mr. Ehrlich lost his re-election bid with 46 percent of the vote to 53 percent for then-Baltimore Mayor O’Malley.

Mr. O’Malley, for his part, has avoided detailed comments about a rematch. Instead, he underscored that he is focusing on the legislative session that runs through April 12.

“I look forward to the upcoming campaign and a healthy debate about moving Maryland forward,” Mr. O’Malley said in a statement issued by his campaign on Tuesday.

Mr. O’Malley has made job creation the core of his legislative agenda. Last week, he signed emergency legislation creating a $5,000 tax credit for Maryland employers who hire an unemployed resident. The governor included $20 million in the budget for the initiative.

“We’re glad Ehrlich has finally announced,” said Tom Russell, Mr. O’Malley’s campaign manager. “Running against a big-spending politician turned special interest lobbyist should provide a good contrast with the tough leadership and real progress achieved by the O’Malley/Brown administration.”

Republicans cheered the announcement. Republican House Leader Anthony O’Donnell said he was “excited about the prospect of a significant change in the direction that Maryland is heading.”

Audrey Scott, chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party, said it was the announcement she had been hoping for.

“I think everyone knows Governor Ehrlich is our best chance to take back the governor’s mansion and the capital, and I think that his four years as governor were marked by tremendous success.”

Mr. Ehrlich said he will formally announce his candidacy April 7 in Montgomery County, the state’s largest jurisdiction and Mr. O’Malley’s boyhood home. Mr. Ehrlich also will appear that night in his hometown of Arbutus, a Baltimore suburb.

Mr. Ehrlich said he has not decided on a running mate.

Since 2007, Mr. Ehrlich has been working as a consultant for the law firm of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Baltimore. He also has had a Saturday radio show on WBAL-AM with his wife, Kendel.

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