Former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made his most extensive public comments to date about his recent election defeat but had nothing to say about automated phone calls ordered by an operative who said he was working for his campaign.
Democrats have demanded an explanation from the Republican Ehrlich about the Election Day calls, which appeared designed to suppress voter turnout in heavily Democratic Baltimore. Julius Henson, whose companies were paid more than $97,000 by Ehrlich's campaign, acknowledged Friday that he was behind the calls after they were tracked by The Baltimore Sun.
Ehrlich offered a post-mortem on the campaign, and his 24-year career in politics, in a phone call to his wife Kendel's Saturday morning talk show on WBAL radio. During the six-minute conversation, he repeatedly thanked supporters and urged young people to remain involved in politics.
But his tone, and the overall thrust of his comments, was anything but upbeat. At one point, his wife appeared to suggest that Ehrlich regretted his decision to seek a rematch against Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Alluding to their private conversations at home, she said there were no regrets about the campaign "other than possibly the regret of making a decision" to run.
"You knew in your gut it was going to be difficult and uphill," she added.
Ehrlich made a late entry into the race last spring, and his fundraising never caught up to the incumbent's. In a strong year for Republicans, he was defeated by more than 13 percentage points, double the gap in his loss to O'Malley in 2006, a much weaker Republican year.
Ehrlich said he was well aware, going into the race, that Maryland Democrats had built a "huge ratio" in voter registration during the 2008 presidential election and held roughly 60 percent of the state's registered voters to just 26 percent for Republicans.
"But we knew that when we got in the race, obviously, and so . . .," he said, his voice trailing off.
"We thought the tide might carry it through," his wife quickly chimed in, referring to Republican victories in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts last year that encouraged Ehrlich to try again.
The former governor said that for a Republican to challenge a Democrat in Maryland, "you have to be real perfect here, there's no doubt about it."
His wife, who some see as a future candidate, had a gloomy prognosis for Maryland Republicans.
"It's going to be very difficult, with redistricting, going forward, for the party in general, difficult for the party to raise money," she said.
But she also said, of the just completed campaign, there would be "no Monday morning quarterbacking this to death. There's no regrets. We gave it one last stand. We've got the flag."
Ehrlich agreed, remarking that there were "very few decisions we would not have made" during the campaign.
He acknowledged that he'd been hurt by attack ads and by his failure to raise enough money to mount an adequate response.
"Negative ads really do work, particularly if you don't have the money to meet them," he said. "Particularly in the Washington suburbs, we got hit hard there and did not have the money to respond."
Ehrlich set out to make Montgomery County a battleground but, as the fall campaign progressed, fell back to his Baltimore County base, which he carried in his first two gubernatorial runs. He wound up losing Montgomery by almost 100,000 votes while barely breaking even in Baltimore County, according to unofficial results from the Maryland Board of Elections.
"Obviously, we're very disappointed. I'm a competitor, we're competitors, and we're very, very disappointed," he said.
His wife, trying to buck him up, broke in to say that "people are very proud you stepped up to the plate."
"Well, this is a bottom-line business, though, and either you win or you lose," said the former governor. "Obviously the state's going to go in a particular direction now and it's not in a direction that I want it to go in."
At another point, he returned to that theme. "The people of Maryland want a particular direction. They've voted this way just about every time. Forever. And as we said, it is what it is," said Ehrlich. "We'll see where the state goes in the future. But there's clearly a direction with regard to what people want in this state, there's no doubt about it."
Neither Ehrlich mentioned O'Malley by name and they both made it clear that one of them, at least, is done with politics for good.
Ehrlich said his career, which dates from his election to the Maryland General Assembly and includes four terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, "has been uniformly great" over the last 24 years.
"We are very lucky people," he said. Then he added, in an echo, conscious or otherwise, of the ailing baseball great Lou Gehrig's famous farewell speech: "I'm the luckiest guy in the world."