Capitol Idea: The Election You’re Probably Not Watching — But Should

Perhaps it’s a matter of being long-overshadowed by another certain small blue state to the north whose name also begins with the letter “M.” But Maryland seldom is recognized for its political cadre.

Which is a shame, really, because the Free State is home to more than its share of colorful characters.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, for instance, rose to a position of influence and power over the nation’s purse strings with a powerful post atop an Appropriations subcommittee — and perennially comes up as the state’s most popular politician — largely by projecting a persona as as a feisty grandma from “Ballmer,” as the city is called in its quirky accent.

A workhorse for decades for Maryland’s southern counties, Rep. Steny Hoyer today is House majority leader.

And, although she is derided by her adversaries as a San Francisco liberal, Speaker Nancy Pelosi actually is a daughter of Baltimore — her father and brother both served as respected mayors of Charm City.

Oh, yeah, and Maryland also can lay claim to its own branches of the Kennedy clan.

Yet for all of that, and more, Maryland’s relative obscurity on the national political map likely will consign what here is a slugfest for the governor’s office into little more than a literal blip on the screen when it comes time for network Election Night results coverage.

Smart political observers, though, would be wise to pay more attention because whomever wins in Maryland Tuesday night, you likely will see again — running for president, or vice president, in the coming years.

Maryland’s 2010 gubernatorial election is a grudge match. Former governor Bob Ehrlich, the state’s first Republican chief executive since Spiro Agnew, is fighting for his old job back against the man who defeated him in the 2006 Democratic wave, Gov. Martin O’Malley. Not only is this a political battle royale, it has been often reported how these men just don’t like each other at all.

But both men have the potential, and the ambition, to vault from the state capitol to the nation’s capital.

In fact, as a former congressman from Baltimore’s suburb’s, for Ehrlich it would a return trip.

Before his defeat, Ehrlich already was occasionally talked-up for national ambitions as a Republican who could win heavily blue states like Maryland. Ehrlich comes from a blue-collar background, and has much the same everyman affability that first made George W. Bush so appealing a decade ago.

(Oh, and the man who served as Ehrlich’s lieutentant governor is no less than the outspoken, and often-controversial current chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele.)

If Ehrlich wins his old job back, and Tuesday night goes well for Steele nationally, look for the two old running mates to join forces again in the near future. Depending how the 2012 GOP presidential field shapes up, and what dynamics shape that race, Ehrlich could find himself as a vice-presidential running mate in as little as two years’ time.

But for that to happen, Ehrlich will have to knock off O’Malley, who has opened up a strong lead after two had been running neck-and-neck for months.

If Ehrlich reminds you of Bush, O’Malley gives off a distinctly Clinton vibe: young, cerebral, wonky, and telegenic. But O’Malley can do Clinton even better. Bubba could play the sax, but O’Malley fronts his own band, O’Malley’s March.

O’Malley’s national ambitions are a sort of open secret here in Maryland, and he has been working to raise his profile on the national stage for years, even before becoming governor. He delivered a speech on homeland security priorities in Washington after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when he was still only the mayor of Baltimore.

While O’Malley and Barack Obama today are political allies — the president stumped for O’Malley just recently — the governor was an early endorser of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries.

If there is anything to the speculation that she is looking to try another run for president in 2016, the aging Hillary could do well to select a youthful running mate who reminds voters of the best qualities of her husband.

If Hillary doesn’t run, O’Malley could well jump into the fight for the top spot on the 2016 ticket — either in a wide-open field to succeed a retiring Obama, or to take down the incumbent if a Republican bests Obama in 2012.

Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article was first published as The Election You’re Probably Not Watching — But Should on Blogcritics.

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