GRASONVILLE, Md.-Bob Ehrlich strode into the second-floor banquet room of the Harris Crab House on Maryland's Eastern Shore and apologized to the gathering of fishermen, crabbers, and oystermen. Rolling up his sleeves to fit in, the Republican candidate for governor felt uneasy wearing his blue business shirt and red-striped tie among the sun-beaten collection of workers who simply call themselves Maryland Watermen. But the locals who make their living off the Chesapeake Bay didn't mind. They seemed eager to do something not attributed to the stereotypical fishermen: talk.
"It is not mother nature that is hurting us. It's government," explained Jack Brooks, co-owner of a crabmeat processing plant in Cambridge, Md., speaking of the watermen's fear that the seafood industry is in jeopardy in a room surrounded by paintings depicting the region's legacy of crabbing and oyster shucking.
The watermen said their state had a two-year head start over the rest of the nation when it comes to the repercussions of big-government. Since current Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley took office in 2007, he has increased the state's oyster sanctuary network from 9 percent to 25 percent of the viable oyster habitat.
To highlight the crippling effect such restrictions have had on the industry, Jason Ruth showed me his nearby oyster distribution plant. There the powerful lingering smell of oysters offered the only proof of work in an otherwise empty and darkened shucking room. The regulations-combined with fallout from the BP oil spill-means Ruth's work force has dropped from 67 employees to 12.
"All people want to do is work," he told me.
Ehrlich has heard similar emotional stories from small business owners of all types since he began traveling the state after announcing his candidacy 14 weeks ago. A former governor who lost his 2006 reelection bid to O'Malley, Ehrlich began noticing this voter dissatisfaction last year. Contemplating a rematch, Ehrlich began attending Republican meetings around the state. "It wasn't the usual 100 people. It was three to four hundred people, and I didn't know a lot of them."
Seeing the new faces encouraged Ehrlich to challenge O'Malley. So far the decision is paying off: Ehrlich recently claimed a 3-percentage-point lead over the incumbent O'Malley. "There is no such thing as a cocky Maryland Republican," said Ehrlich of his early edge in a state where both senators are Democrats as well as seven of eight House members, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
But if the Republican Party is going to turn this favorable political climate into a wave election that wipes out Democratic control of Congress and numerous statehouses, they will need candidates like Ehrlich to win in solid blue states like Maryland. Two years ago the idea was far-fetched, but not today.
In the House, the Cook Political Report labels as competitive 64 Democrat-held seats. Just seven Republican seats are listed as competitive.
Michael Franc with the Heritage Foundation told me that several Senate races not expected to be competitive are suddenly tight, including those in Democratic strongholds such as California, Wisconsin, and Washington. "It is almost a scarlet letter to be an incumbent," he said. "People want to light torches and march to the Capitol."
These are states, like Maryland, where the Tea Party presence has yet to have the impact on the scale seen in Western and Southern states. The Republican base, not only Tea Partiers, is fired up: In primary races so far Republican voters have outnumbered Democratic voters by nearly 1 million. That is a switch from recent midterm elections-in 2002 and 2006-when Democrats bested Republicans by almost 3 million primary votes both years.
This energy seemed clear at a recent Republican fundraising dinner in Maryland's Baltimore County. There the introductions of Republicans running for office stretched longer than anyone could remember, and this in a county where six of the seven seats on the council belong to Democrats.
"We are waking up," exclaimed Chris Luciano, a 38-year-old businessman at the dinner.
The reason for hope kept coming back to one person. "Barack Obama is the best thing to happen to the Republican Party," said Tony Campbell, an adjunct professor of political science at Maryland's Towson University.
Campbell, who used to belong to Republicans for Obama, said Obama has expended an unprecedented amount of political capital since taking office-topped off by his 13-month push to overhaul healthcare. Independents in particular feel betrayed after Obama campaigned in 2008 on promises they say now bear little resemblance to the leftward push of his legislative agenda.
A recent Gallup poll shows that the key voting bloc of independent voters now prefer Republicans over Democrats 46 percent to 32 percent-the 14 percent difference being the highest of the year.
But for Ehrlich to win in Maryland, he will need more than Republicans and Independents. "Democrats have to elect him because Republicans can't," Larry Simns told me at the end of the Harris Crab House meeting. Not only is Simns a fishing boat captain and the president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, he describes himself as a lifelong Democrat who will support Ehrlich.
"I didn't leave the Democratic Party," he said. "The Democratic Party left my viewpoint." Ehrlich and other candidates in left-leaning states hope there are others out there like Captain Simns.