Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s bid to retake the Maryland governorship has been guided largely by the same inner circle that in 2002 helped him become the state’s first Republican governor in roughly three decades. But his closest political adviser this time around may well be his wife, Kendel, a constant companion in public with enough political savvy and toughness, observers say, to join the next generation of conservative female leaders.
“We’re a pretty good team,” Mr. Ehrlich said last week between campaign stops. “I’m the hard-headed pragmatist, and she’s the overly enthusiastic advocate.”
With less than four weeks remaining before the general election, Mr. Ehrlich and Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, are locked in hard-fought battle as the incumbent seeks to overcome national momentum for the Republican Party in one of the country’s more liberal states.
Though most forecasters still rate the race a tossup or “leaning Democrat,” two recent polls found Mr. Ehrlich trailing the man who ousted him in 2006. A Washington Post poll last week gave Mr. O’Malley an 11-point lead among likely voters, and a new Rasmussen Reports poll released Tuesday gave the Democrat an 8-point edge.
Mr. Ehrlich dismisses the unfavorable polls as “out of whack” and “light years from what both sides, I think, know to be reality.”
However the race turns out, Mr. Ehrlich readily acknowledges that his wife’s encouragement played a key role in getting him back into the arena after the deflating 2006 loss.
Soon after losing the race, Mr. Ehrlich and several top aides began working for a law firm and weighing the odds of a potential comeback.
GOP gubernatorial wins in New Jersey and Virginia in November 2009, combined with Republican Scott Brown’s stunning upset in the Massachusetts special Senate race two months later, showed the party was still competitive in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast. The economic downturn and a rising anti-incumbent sentiment in the polls also played a part in Mr. Ehrlich’s eleventh-hour decision to enter the race.
But Kendel Ehrlich’s vote was also crucial.
“I thought my public career was most likely over, [but] she explained to me a couple of years ago that we’re not done,” Mr. Ehrlich said when announcing his candidacy in April, his wife by his side.
Since then, the 48-year-old Mrs. Ehrlich has been a steady figure on the campaign trail and at rallies and fundraisers. She also continues at the microphone of the AM radio show in Baltimore that the couple co-hosted until Mr. Ehrlich signed off in July to officially enter the governor’s race.
After graduating from the University of Baltimore law school in 1987, Mrs. Ehrlich became an Anne Arundel County assistant public defender, then a prosecutor in Harford County. There was even some speculation around the state, highlighted in a 2009 Baltimore Sun article, that she would be the Ehrlich who be on the ballot this year.
“Kendel really should be the one running,” said T. Joseph Touhey, her former boss at an Anne Arundel County law firm. “She’s energetic, aggressive and has the credentials.”
“There’s nothing Mr. Ehrlich doesn’t do without talking to her,” Mr. Touhey continued. “She has a good feel for politics. If she ever decided to run for Senate, she’d be a heck of a candidate.”
Whether Mrs. Ehrlich is indeed her husband’s closest adviser, and exactly how much influence she has on the race is open for debate.
“She’s my best friend,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “So under that definition, she is my closest confidante and fits every other job description.”
Asked about the influence of his opponent’s wife, Mr. O’Malley considered the question for several seconds, then simply said, “I won’t go there.”
Mrs. Ehrlich declined to comment for this article, but Mr. Ehrlich last week said the couple has ruled out a political career for her at least until their two sons, aged 11 and 6, are older.
Both Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. O’Malley in the closing weeks have focused on the voter-rich Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, with each pitching his plan to create and keep jobs in Maryland and to assist small businesses.
President Obama is scheduled to join Mr. O’Malley on Wednesday at a campaign stop at historically black Bowie State University in Prince George’s County, which helped carry the governor to victory in 2006.
To win in November, Mr. Ehrlich, positioned as a moderate in a heavily Democratic state, must do well in populous Montgomery County and with independent and “tea party” voters, many of whom supported Sarah Palin-backed candidate Brian Murphy in the Republican primary.