From his first days as Baltimore mayor more than a decade ago, Democrat Martin O’Malley has been discussed as a future presidential contender.
Now in his second and final term as Maryland’s governor, O’Malley has built a base-pleasing resume to assist that political ascension if he gets into the 2016 presidential primary -- although it risks being a drag in a general election.
O’Malley, 50, this year passed some of the country’s strictest gun controls, repealed the death penalty, crafted an offshore wind project and raised gas taxes to pay for transportation improvements. He began signing those bills, including the wind project, into law today and will hold additional signing ceremonies in the coming weeks, adding to his record of helping pass gay marriage and securing in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants.
“If you needed to put a bumper-sticker label to it, I suppose you could call us the performance-driven progressives,” O’Malley said in an interview in his Annapolis office yesterday, hours before the year’s legislative session closed. “It’s a fundamentally different way of governing than the ideological and ultra-bureaucratic approach of our parents.”
Maryland Republicans also have taken notice of his record, and how it could work against him on the national stage. State party chairman David Ferguson prepared a “briefing book” for media who covered O’Malley’s March 23 speech at South Carolina’s Democratic Party conference.
“Martin O’Malley is determined to become the President of the United States and is planning a campaign for the 2016 election cycle,” the briefing book says, highlighting his death-penalty repeal, gun legislation and other policies. “This radical social agenda has been seen as ‘checking the boxes’ for the most extreme and liberal Democrat Party primary voters.”
He could face bigger hurdles, particularly if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gets into the race and overshadows the lesser-known governor.
O’Malley’s moves illustrate how candidates strive to lay down early markers on issues that will separate them in a crowded primary field and, with good luck, be in sync with public opinion in a presidential election year.
Such tactics can backfire. Republican nominee Mitt Romney shifted to a harsher stance on immigration policy between his 2008 primary and 2012 presidential campaigns -- a pivot that ran counter to public opinion and drove Hispanics to President Barack Obama.
Polls show some O’Malley policies may be too far reaching for most U.S. voters, and even in some cases Marylanders.
More than 60 percent of Americans support the death penalty, according to a Gallup poll released Jan. 9, 2013. Gas taxes are among the least popular methods of raising revenue, polls in Washington, Massachusetts and Maryland show. Same-sex marriage is becoming more accepted, yet at most a slim majority of Americans support it.
Those positions could help in a Democratic primary. A strong showing in early states helped boost former Vermont Governor Howard Dean to relevance in the 2004 primary season. Four years later, then-Senator Obama of Illinois took up the liberal mantle, beating Clinton.
‘Left of Hillary’
“O’Malley’s certainly not hurting himself by running to the left of Hillary Clinton. That worked once before,” said Kevin Sheridan, a Republican strategist who recently advised Romney’s vice presidential running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan. “He’s staking out ground on the left of Hillary, and there’s absolutely no consequence to doing that when you’re governing in a place like Maryland,” a state dominated by Democrats.
Iowa’s Democratic caucuses tend to favor the most liberal of the candidates, said Steffen W. Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University.
“He has to ask himself about Iowa Democrats, and Iowa Democrats are very progressive,” Schmidt said. “If O’Malley can spin his magic and talk about what he has accomplished as governor, he can do very, very well.”
Sheridan cautioned that O’Malley would have to “answer for his policies if he faces the broader electorate” in a general election.
More immediately, it seems to be rubbing Marylanders the wrong way. A Washington Post poll in February found that 17 percent of Maryland residents would “definitely vote” for O’Malley if he were the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, while 38 percent would “definitely not vote” for him.
O’Malley, who term expires in January 2015, is comforted by history. He points to Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, whose tenures as governor preceded their successful presidential campaigns.
“I’m guessing you would have found the same thing three years before in Georgia,” O’Malley said. “I’m guessing you’d probably find the same phenomenon in Arkansas. There are trade-offs to being effective in office, especially in these times.”
To that end, he plans to spend his summer selling the “job-creation benefits of some of these difficult and unpopular choices,” specifically mentioning his transportation package. Maryland’s gasoline tax -- 23.5 cents a gallon since 1992 --will rise to an estimated 44.6 cents a gallon by 2018, beginning with a 3.8-cent increase this year, according to the Maryland General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services.
O’Malley wants to focus on different numbers: He says the congestion-easing infrastructure projects the tax pays for will support 57,000 jobs.
He highlights his government data program called “State Stat,” and Maryland’s financial achievements, including maintaining the strongest possible bond rating and showing one of the fastest rates of job recovery since the recession began lifting.
The governor also turned to numbers as he urged Maryland lawmakers to repeal the death penalty, which he said costs the state millions in legal fees to implement. As a Catholic, he has long opposed state executions on moral and ethical grounds. This time he leaned on his “practical progressive” approach.
“Is the death penalty an effective use of taxpayer dollars?” he asked when he testified before a state Senate committee on Feb. 14. “Especially in tough times, if a public policy is expensive and it does not work, it would seem to me that it should be a prime candidate for repeal.”
Joining O’Malley on a list of Democratic governors who might pursue their party’s presidential nomination are New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper -- who also have passed gun restrictions and other policies favored by Democrats in recent years.
O’Malley’s gun legislation calls for a ban on 45 kinds of semiautomatic rifles and limits ammunition magazines to 10 rounds -- two measures the U.S. Congress isn’t likely to pursue federally. It also requires handgun purchasers to submit fingerprints to the state police and prohibits people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental-health facility from having guns.
“We’re seeing these governors working very hard to shore up their left flank,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes governor’s races as senior editor of the Cook Political Report. “And O’Malley has gotten more done than most.”
Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist based in California, said as governor, O’Malley has “a story to tell about what he has done in the microcosm that is Maryland.”
“It’s very important to have a record you can talk about when you’re running, and he has things that he can tell people that Washington-based politicians can’t do as well,” Carrick said.
His name recognition remains low; it’s now been 11 years since Esquire magazine called him the “best young mayor in the country.” And though he still occasionally plays with his Celtic rock band O’Malley’s March, it’s not the media-attracting novelty it once was. Two speeches at Democratic National Conventions, in 2004 and last year, garnered mixed reviews rather than enthusiastic buzz.
The Maryland governor demurs when talk of 2016 comes up. Still, the presidential signs are there: In addition to his legislative wins, he has a super-political action committee that can help raise early money and serve as a home base for some of his top advisers. He regularly lends his name to the Democratic National Committee for fundraising pitches, sending an e-mail April 5 that asked supporters to “chip in $5 or more” to “show Democrats across the country that you have their back in the fight to reduce gun violence.”
O’Malley also took the unusual step of staying on as finance chairman of the Democratic Governors Association after serving in its top post for two years. This enables him to keep meeting big donors.
Asked about his future, O’Malley focuses on Maryland. He said that without a state election in his future, he has the “political freedom” to talk about what policies are working or not working in Maryland.