Gov. O'Malley agenda could undermine 2016 presidential hopes

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is staking out an early claim on the Democratic Party’s left flank is he prepares for a potential 2016 presidential run, a strategy that could be equal parts advantageous and detrimental to his prospects.

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O’Malley successfully pushed through the Maryland legislature a spate of liberal bills that make the state one of the most progressive in the nation on both social and economic issues. He worked to repeal the state’s death penalty, established an offshore wind project, passed strict gun control laws while Congress waffled and raised gas taxes to fund transportation improvements.

In a media blitz of sit-down interviews with a number of national publications, O’Malley characterized himself as a problem-solver committed to finding progressive solutions to the state’s ills.

He’s traveled to early primary states South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire, and set up a super PAC to raise funds for the “next chapter.”

And he hasn’t been coy about his interest. He told the Baltimore Sun’s editorial board that in the coming year, he’ll evaluate his chances for a run.

“I need to be spending a lot more energy and time giving serious consideration and preparation to what—if anything—I might have to offer should I decide to run for president in 2016,” he said.

It’s clear, said Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton campaign adviser Phil Singer, that O’Malley is positioning himself for a potential White House run.

“If you look at some of the things he's done over the past weeks and months, he's definitely checking the box on a number of issues, so he might try to run to the left,” he said.

“In primaries, and he knows this, it’s usually most effective to court the fringe of the fringe.”

But potential supporters and opponents alike warn that his positioning could undermine his competitiveness in a general — and may not even be enough to get him through a primary.

Former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges (D), a supporter of O’Malley’s who has hosted fundraisers for him but said he is undecided in the 2016 race, called the governor a “traditional left-of-center Democrat,” but said that might not mean much in a Democratic primary, now that many issues that once separated the far-left wing of the party are no longer considered fringe issues.

“A lot of the cutting-edge issues like marriage equality, that would have been one place he could differentiate himself, those are pretty standard Democratic issues now. I’m just not really sure [how he could set himself apart].”

Hodges suggested health care could be an issue on which O’Malley could emerge as a distinct contender, as much of ObamaCare is scheduled for implementation this upcoming year.

O’Malley could also emerge as a leader in the party on taxes, the Democratic answer to Kansas GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who is pushing to eliminate the state’s income tax and is held as an example of Republican policies at work. O’Malley has actually raised Maryland’s state income tax on those making more than $100,000, lower than the baseline President Obama has proposed.

If his policies are successful, his leadership in implementing one of the nation’s most progressive tax codes could be a strong argument among Democrats in 2016. But Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist warned that any negative repercussions could haunt him in a national run.

“To win the primary, you have to do something to amaze the Democrats...what he’s doing is moving hard, hard left on everything,” Norquist told The Hill.

“He’s getting rid of the death penalty — we’ve got four years to the election, what happens to the murder rate and the crime rate in his state? He’s raised taxes on certain people, what happens to jobs, what happens to the thousandaires tax? He’s got to live with the results of this.”

Norquist noted that, as governor, O’Malley can’t wash his hands of or place blame for any of his policies on any state legislators. And unlike Hillary Clinton, who can disavow or make a claim to any of President Obama’s failures or successes, O’Malley is stuck with the consequences of his policies.

And in a general election campaign, those consequences could cripple him in some swing states where public opinion is opposed to higher taxes, or perhaps favors the death penalty.

Norquist sounded eager for an O’Malley run in 2016.

“I think he'd be a perfect guy to run against, for a Republican,” Norquist said.