Will Martin O’Malley Be Hillary’s Undoing In 2016 Presidential Race?

“That inevitable front-runner is inevitable right up until he or she is no longer inevitable. … People inside the Beltway are usually the last people to know when something is happening in Iowa or in New Hampshire … Stay tuned.”

By Ben Jacobs
The Guardian (3/12/15)

Like Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley – who said on Thursday he would make a decision on whether to run for president in 2016 “this spring” – has only lost an election to one opponent. But the former governor of Maryland and potential 2016 Democratic candidate for the White House was defeated by a far less well-known opponent than Barack Obama – he lost a bid for the Maryland state Senate in 1990 to an incumbent named John Pica.

Pica bragged in an interview last month that he “whupped [O’Malley’s] ass” in his north-east Baltimore district. The now long-retired state legislator then admitted “I like to think it was 44 votes, he says it was 43” before settling on 43½ as a fair compromise. Pica started the race as a huge favorite, an incumbent running against a relative unknown who only moved to the famously parochial city of Baltimore just a few years before. But then O’Malley came out of nowhere to almost beat him.

Pica said he didn’t even think “the election was tight until two days before - but he understood the momentum of the campaign. I kept thinking this guy has no chance and, then, all of the sudden, this guy is making progress.” In fact, O’Malley actually had a five-vote lead on election night and only lost after a recount and late absentee ballots came in.

The question is whether O’Malley, facing just as fearsome odds in the race for the 2016 Democratic nomination, can give Clinton the same run for her money.

O’Malley is a mishmash of a stray Kennedy and the type of policy obsessive who even thinktanks keep locked away in a back office cubicle. A liberal Democrat, the former Baltimore mayor has a square jaw, bulging biceps, picture-perfect family and his own Irish folk rock band in which he plays guitar and sings lead – often in shirts that show off those biceps.

However, the longtime campaign staffer on former Colorado senator Gary Hart’s two presidential campaigns is also astonishingly nerdy. O’Malley is a War of 1812 obsessive whose passion in elected office was improved data-driven management.

The same inherent contradictions apply to O’Malley’s approach to retail politics. He isn’t Hillary Clinton, gritting painfully through every interaction with a voter or a reporter, but nor is he some sort of retail wunderkind like Bill Clinton who feeds off of human interaction. Instead, he deals with it like a normal person would – as normal as any human being who is willing to spend a career in elective politics and contemplate a run for the presidency. O’Malley doesn’t come across as a backslapper or a cold fish; just a guy who, but for the grace of God, would have been a lawyer trying to forge connections with jurors in a Baltimore courtroom, not voters in an Iowa coffee shop.

As Pica described it, while O’Malley certainly had some skills in retail politics – he reminisced that O’Malley “would go into nursing homes and sing Danny Boy and all the old ladies would love it” – his real advantage wasn’t “in shaking hands”. Instead, his gift was strategy. O’Malley’s opponent still marveled at how much he learned about mailings and about “never leaving any task partially completed” during the race.

O’Malley used that 1990 race for the Maryland state Senate as a jumping-off point. A year later, he won election to Baltimore’s city council. Then, in 1999, frustrated with the city council, O’Malley launched an underdog race for mayor of Baltimore. He got in the race with only three months to go before the Democratic primary as a white man running in a predominantly African American city. O’Malley ended up receiving a majority of the vote in the primary (tantamount to election in deep-blue Baltimore). He had a successful tenure as mayor – using his obsession with data to help bring crime down significantly in Baltimore – before running for governor of Maryland against incumbent Republican Bob Ehrlich, whom he defeated in 2006.

In his eight years as governor (O’Malley beat Ehrlich again in 2010), he achieved an impressive progressive policy record even by the standards of a liberal state like Maryland. During his tenure, extensive environmental legislation passed to protect the Chesapeake Bay, gay marriage was legalized, the minimum wage was raised, the death penalty was abolished and undocumented immigrants were allowed to receive driver’s licenses. However, there were a number of setbacks too. Maryland’s health exchange under the Affordable Care Act was an expensive disaster and O’Malley’s hand-picked successor, Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, suffered a surprising loss in the 2014 general election – based partially on discontent over O’Malley’s tax increases. This meant that for all of O’Malley’s resume of success, he left office looking politically weak.

Putting out feelers

The Maryland Democrat has long been preparing for a presidential run. In fact, he has done more to reach out to local politicos in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire than any other Democrat, and even many Republicans. In the 2014 mid-terms, O’Malley paid for 29 campaign staffers on races across the country. This included 11 in Iowa and four apiece in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He also ended up doling out more than $365,000 to Democratic campaigns across the country, including more than $25,000 to candidates in Iowa alone.

For all of that, one recent poll in Iowa had O’Malley at 0%. Not at the margin of error, not a fraction of 1% – not a single respondent listed the former Maryland governor as their first choice. In national polls, O’Malley has done ever so slightly better, polling between 1% and 2%. On the rare occasions that he is recognized, it’s as likely for acharacter on the HBO show The Wirewho may have been partially based on him than for his political accomplishments.

But for all his work on the hustings and struggles in the polls, O’Malley has resisted the opportunity to take a direct shot at Hillary Clinton. Even at an appearance at the Brookings Institute on Wednesday, the former Maryland governor declined to weigh in on the brewing controversy around her use of a private email address while at the State Department. Instead, he said he was “a little sick of the email drama” and joked with reporters that he hoped that they weren’t “going to ask about the emails”.

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