Brian Murphy came to a restaurant in Frederick, Maryland, in a mostly Republican county, to raise cash and campaign for the party’s nomination for governor against Bob Ehrlich, who was ousted from the job in 2006.
Murphy, a 33-year old Wharton School graduate and first- time candidate backed by former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, railed against the state’s high taxes and Ehrlich’s record of boosting government spending during his single term as the state’s first Republican governor in three decades. Murphy spoke against abortion. He vowed to crack down on illegal immigrants.
Only two dozen voters were there to hear.
“When we first started this campaign, people said you can never win,” he said Sept. 2 at Frederick’s Red Horse restaurant, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Washington. “And now everybody’s saying, I’m voting for you but you can’t win.”
While the slow economic recovery and anti-incumbent ire are promising to help boost Republicans in the 37 races for governor across the U.S., Murphy has struggled to harness the Tea Party movement’s energy to mount a primary challenge to Ehrlich, 52. Activists in the Tea Party, a loose coalition that seeks limits on government spending, taxes and debt, are mounting a nationwide effort to get voters to the polls.
With primary voting set to close today, surveys suggest Republicans may pick Ehrlich, a former state legislator and congressman. They wager he’s the only one capable of beating Democratic incumbent Martin O’Malley, 47, who heads a state where Republicans are outnumbered 2-to-1, analysts said.
Beating the Democrat
“There might be people who would say he’s not as conservative as I’d like,” Adam Hoffman, who teaches politics at Salisbury University in Salisbury, said of Ehrlich. “But at least he’s the Republican who can beat the Democrat.”
While in office, he fought legislation to raise the minimum wage and require large businesses to pay for health insurance, while angering some Republicans by increasing state fees. In the 2006 election, when Democrats reclaimed the majority hold on governorships that Republicans had since 1994, he lost to O’Malley, a former Baltimore mayor, by 53 percent to 46 percent.
Maryland is among states today holding primaries to select party nominees for governor in the November general elections. In all, seven states are holding primaries that will decide nominees for congressional races, including a Senate race in Delaware that pits a candidate backed by state and national Republicans against a Palin-endorsed insurgent.
In New York, Tea Party favorite Carl Paladino, 64, a real estate developer who has drawn upon his own wealth to finance his first campaign, has narrowed the gap in voter surveys for the Republican nomination against Rick Lazio, 52, a former four- term congressman from Long Island. Paladino’s slogan, “We’re Mad as Hell,” protests against taxes paid by state residents.
In Maryland, Murphy’s campaign won attention last month when he was endorsed by Palin, who praised him as a gun-rights supporter who is opposed to abortion and a “firm believer in the free market.” Palin’s imprimatur helped U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller in Alaska, whose victory followed success of Tea Party candidates over establishment-backed rivals in Nevada, Kentucky, Colorado and Utah.
Murphy has continued to trail Ehrlich in fundraising and in opinion surveys. A mid-August poll by Annapolis, Maryland-based market researcher OpinionWorks of 132 Republican likely voters, found that Murphy lagged behind Ehrlich by a 62 percentage-point margin. He had $30,776 in his campaign account, according to a Sept. 3 state filing, compared with Ehrlich’s $2.47 million.
“He’s got no money, no visibility, no clout,” said Donald Norris, chairman of the Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “All the smart money in the state is on Bob Ehrlich -- and all the big money is on Bob Ehrlich.”
The Tea Party’s message may not resonate in Maryland because of the economy, said Michael Cain, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City. “I don’t see those winds blowing here and now,” he said.
In July, the unemployment rate was 7.1 percent, 2.4 percentage points less than the national level. The federal government spent $70.6 billion in the state during the 12 months through September 2008 budget year, or $12,569 per resident, the third highest rate in the U.S. and behind only Virginia and Alaska, according to a January report by Maryland’s Legislative Services Department.
As the campaign entered its final weeks, Murphy was undeterred, touring the state in what he called a “Refuse to Settle” tour.
In an interview during his campaign fundraiser in Frederick, Murphy said he may win if he can galvanize the relatively small number of Republican voters who typically turn out for Maryland primaries. Only 233,000 Republicans, or 26 percent, voted in the 2006 primary, election returns show.
“That’s three-and-a-half times what they seat at Raven’s Stadium,” he said. “It’s not that many people you have to reach.”
Murphy, who left his job as a risk manager for Baltimore utility Constellation Energy Group Inc. amid the financial crisis of 2008 and is now a small-business investor, said his fiscally conservative message should resonate with Republicans.
He’s already got Hugh Warner, a 65-year-old flag salesman. As he waited for Murphy to speak in Frederick, Warner said he was drawn by Murphy’s vow to crack down on illegal immigrants and keep taxes low, which he said Ehrlich failed to do.
It’s time for a change in Annapolis, Maryland’s capital, Warner said.
“He’s hitting all the right chords,” Warner said. “We need to clean house. The whole bunch of them in Annapolis needs to be thrown out.”