While navigating his taxi through Baltimore's Inner Harbor waterfront area early last Sunday morning, longtime Maryland resident Amde Meslin chuckled when asked whether he had been following the state's 2014 race for governor.
"Doesn't matter," he said, shaking his head and flashing a knowing set of eyes in the rear-view mirror. "Does not matter. Whoever takes over for (Gov. Martin) O'Malley, things'll just stay the same, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing - just that it is what it is."
What it is is, well, a lot of things during O'Malley's tenure.
Same-sex marriage approval. Strict gun-control measures. Gambling and casinos. The rain tax.
Beth Hawks isn't much troubled by three of the aforementioned things. But the owner and founder of "Zelda Zen," a trendy boutique in Baltimore (Fells Point), does have problems with the tacit approval of gaming.
"We're getting these casinos, and they're the worst things ever," she says. "What do you think casinos do to a community? They destroy it. They don't better it."
Hawks hopes Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler runs. Strong on crime, she says. But as for really paying attention to the run-up to the race? "Gotta be honest," she says, "not so much."
SETTING THE TABLE Inasmuch that traditional blue-state Maryland is so reliable in its leanings, it's noteworthy that its political process and accompanying demographics nonetheless are confounding.
Until the past couple of weeks, Maryland's next gubernatorial race had been little more than a distant thing to be decided only when O'Malley and his whirlwind of an administration finally leave the stage.
But now come the official declarations, and November of next year suddenly doesn't seem so distant anymore.
On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is in, and brings with him a running mate in Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. Gansler coyly is delaying any announcement of his intentions but reportedly has been cultivating a campaign strategy.
On the Republican side, Harford County Executive David Craig is in, as is Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel. And lurking is former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, also the former Republican National Committee chairman and now a frequent talking head on MSNBC.
So what's so confounding about that?
For one thing, this isn't really about party v. party. It's about party v. itself. Since 1969, Maryland has had just one Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich (2003-07), and he won against an opponent in Kathleen Kennedy Townsend whose campaign has been widely panned.
In other words, this one's likely to be the lone Democrat standing barring unforeseen events. That's the word from University of Maryland-Baltimore County professor Thomas F. Schaller.
"The Republican party just has such a very short bench in Maryland," says Schaller, who's been following Maryland politics for years. "That's not a criticism, it's just a reality. The Democrats usually have a fight among a wealth of riches of candidates who could be certifiable gubernatorial candidates, and usually the Republicans don't. Ehrlich was a once-in-a-generation candidate for them."
Adds University of Maryland political science professor Fred Alford: "It's hard for me to even imagine a Republican winning in Maryland."
SO HOW DID EHRLICH DO IT? Schaller has a theory that requires a hatchet.
Basically, he chops up the state and looks for clues while using Virginia as a comparative model.
"(The political dynamic) is similar in the sense that the Northern Virginia counties are much like what used to be called the Big Three counties of Maryland, which were the big three jurisdictions, because Baltimore City is technically a city and not a county. But for a long time, Democrats maximized their votes in Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George's County."
Parris Glendening (1995-2003), for example, won those three areas but lost the state's other 21 jurisdictions and still won.
But the metric had shifted ever so slightly by the time Kathleen Kennedy Townsend ran. Ehrlich knew he didn't have to win Montgomery and Prince George's. He'd have to do OK there but make most of his hay elsewhere. The Democrats watched and the Democrats learned. Enter the then-Baltimore mayor, O'Malley.
"(He) came in four years later (and) he understood these concepts," Schaller says.
SO HERE WE ARE
And we're back where we started.
Republicans will do their darndest, but. . .
"I'm not saying they can't win - it depends on who they nominate, but I think the Democrats are favored," Schaller says.
It's all about turf, baby.