The hardest-working man in Democratic politics

Story highlights

Martin O'Malley has headlined 80 Democratic fundraisers

The Democratic Maryland governor is considering a 2016 presidential bid

Despite his travels, he still struggles in 2016 polls

Washington CNN  — 

A Democrat with White House ambitions is furiously criss-crossing the country to help the party’s candidates – and it’s not Hillary Clinton.

Martin O’Malley, the two-term governor of Maryland, has headlined more than 80 Democratic fundraisers since last year. He’s rallied the party faithful at over 40 campaign events and Jefferson-Jackson Dinners in Democratic strongholds like Massachusetts and in reliably-red states like Mississippi and Kansas.

All told, he’s steered money and staff to 134 Democratic campaigns in more than 25 states, aiding high-profile Senate hopefuls and little-known county commissioner candidates alike.

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O’Malley is outpacing Clinton in his work on behalf of Democratic candidates running for election this year. Though Clinton is her party’s biggest star, her operation for the midterms is only now gearing up with less than a month to go before Election Day. Her aides revealed a campaign schedule last week that will take Clinton to a half dozen states this month, including all-important Iowa and New Hampshire, to boost Democrats in tough races.

“I am doing everything in my power to strengthen the party in every state and to elect as many Democrats as I can,” O’Malley said in an interview with CNN. “Call me old-fashioned, but it’s been my experience that we can only govern effectively when we make our party stronger.”

O’Malley might be the hardest-working man in Democratic politics but that’s obscured by his low standing in national polls.

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Early surveys about the 2016 presidential race show Clinton with a runaway lead over her potential rivals, both nationally and in places like Iowa, a product of her global fame and an impressive resume written over decades in public life.

Clinton routinely registers in the 60% territory, with favorable ratings that soar even higher. Other potential Democratic presidential contenders, including Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren follow distantly, barely crack double digits.

Then there’s O’Malley, perpetually hovering just above 1%.

Each new poll induces a new round of Twitter snark about O’Malley’s low standing, but it could be said that those one-percenters might be the people who matter the most. Academic studies and past campaigns have shown that the opinions of party elites and local activists in key states matter far more than any horse race poll at this stage in the nominating game.

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Clinton’s status as the top choice of Democratic money-men and the party establishment means she can enter the race and immediately unlock a treasure chest of guaranteed support.

O’Malley does not have that luxury.

But he also doesn’t have to worry about the giant entourage and weighty expectations that follow Clinton wherever she goes. His relative obscurity gives him the freedom to move — and he has embarked on a national tour to build a network from the ground up, befriending rank-and-file Democrats in locales far from the Amtrak corridor.

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Some of them already know O’Malley from the 2012 presidential race, when he was one of President Barack Obama’s most loyal surrogates. And as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) from 2011 to 2013, he traveled extensively, assisting gubernatorial candidates and getting valuable face-time with big-ticket donors in the process.

O’Malley might go unrecognized at the mall, but among people who spend Saturday nights eating rubber chicken at Democratic fundraisers, he’s becoming a familiar face.

“There is a level of recognition that I have been surprised to find wherever I go,” O’Malley said. “People want to learn more. There is a curiosity about what we’ve done in Maryland. Some people that recognize me had seen me before during the presidential re-elect, or on MSNBC — a lot of these people watch MSNBC — as an advocate for the president’s reelection. And then people have seen me on television squaring off with the RGA chair, whoever that was at the time.”

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Clinton’s midterm schedule is taking her to familiar 2014 turf — marquee battlegrounds like Kentucky, Iowa and New Hampshire — mostly to help Democrats in the key Senate races that will decide control of Congress. Biden, too, has appeared on the campaign trail and at fundraisers with an eye toward 2016, while Warren drew lively, standing-room-only crowds during a campaign swing to Kentucky and West Virginia this summer.

But O’Malley’s itinerary looks like something out of the Democratic National Committee travel office.

He appeared at a Hispanic voter event in Chicago for Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, walked in a gay pride festival in South Carolina with gubernatorial nominee Vincent Sheheen, delivered the headline address at the California Democratic Party in Los Angeles and made nice with key Obama organizers in Des Moines.

He has pumped money into scores of campaigns across the country, including the top tier Senate and governor’s contests. Charlie Crist, Bruce Braley, Michelle Nunn, Mary Landrieu, Jason Carter: All have received help from O’Malley personally or from his political action committee, O’Say Can You See PAC, according to a spreadsheet of his fundraising activity obtained by CNN.

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Then there are the small-time county party committees and obscure candidates further down the ballot. He’s come to the aid of a county commissioner candidate in Nebraska, Nevada’s rising-star nominee for lieutenant governor and state legislators near and far — though many of them are near Iowa and New Hampshire.

Mayors have received special attention. A former mayor of Baltimore, O’Malley has raised money and campaigned for the mayors in Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina and elsewhere.

He’s also hired and dispatched field staffers to help in a passel of races, most recently sending aides to help the state Democratic Party in Kansas, where the Senate and governor’s races are surprisingly competitive. O’Malley has PAC aides working on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, giving him an early foothold in the states that raise the curtain on the 2016 presidential nominating process.

“People are grateful for the help,” he said.

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O’Malley’s party-building spadework began last year. He cut early checks to embattled red state Democrats like Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

He campaigned in hot off-year races, including Terry McAuliffe’s successful bid to become Virginia’s governor. He also helped Cory Booker, a former mayor like O’Malley, in last summer’s special Senate election in New Jersey.

And while national Democrats were keeping their distance from Barbara Buono, the underdog challenger to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, O’Malley showed up in Trenton at her side.

“Sometimes the uphill fights are the most important,” he said during the New Jersey swing.

Buono took note. “Hillary Clinton wrote me a nice letter — after I lost,” she told The New York Times earlier this year.

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O’Malley dodges questions about the 2016 race and is careful to avoid criticism of Clinton, whom he endorsed during her ill-fated 2008 presidential bid even though he had backed the passionately anti-war Howard Dean four years earlier. It’s still not clear that he will run if she does.

But the story O’Malley tells about himself as he campaigns for Democrats is often framed around his progressive accomplishments and generational differences in leadership — two flanks where Clinton might be vulnerable in a Democratic primary.

O’Malley, 51, said he sometimes feels closer in spirit to his 20-something daughters than to the baby boom generation.

“I am noticing a generational shift,” he said. “While baby boomers were led to believe that sometimes our prosperity comes from separating from other, people under 40 believe that it will come from being closer to others.”

Befitting his roots in city politics, O’Malley gushes about the re-birth of American cities, a renaissance he said is driven by young people who “have an awareness of our interdependence” and chafe at hierarchies and top-down leadership. He praises the power of technology to streamline government, slips terms like “innovation cluster” into his commentary, and name-drops the urban theorist Richard Florida.

“Baby boomers and older were often told that if we specialize in terms of our skills, we will be more secure and prosperous, that the definition of ‘making it” was living out in the suburbs as far way as possible with the biggest lawn possible,” he said. “Young people have flipped that on its head. Younger people are choosing to live in cities. They realize that connections to each other are making us better. That WiFi is a human right. That proximity is important to entrepreneurship, access to capital and talent and diversity. There is an opportunity there for us as a nation to embrace that new perspective.”

There are glimmers of a campaign message as he reflects on his 2014 travels. O’Malley is quick to talk up his record in Annapolis, which, coming out of his mouth, sounds custom-built for Democratic primary voters — top-rated schools, in-state college tuition breaks for young illegal immigrants, legalizing same-sex marriage, repealing the death penalty, enacting strict gun control laws.

“People are interested in hearing how we have done and what we have done in Maryland,” he said. “When you lay out the accumulation of achievements, it’s pretty impressive.”

The twin themes he encounters most, he said in the interview, are frustration with Washington and a palpable sense of economic anxiety.

“Every place I have traveled, after every talk, the constant theme that I hear from people coming up afterwards just to shake my hand or do a cell phone picture, the phrase I hear again and again is the phrase ‘getting things done,’” O’Malley said.

‘“We need leaders who can get things done, or people who can bring us together to get things done. There is a sense that the economy is not working for us. The majority of us are not making any more in real dollar terms that we were making in 1994. That is the primary concern out there. People are less optimistic about being able to give their kids a future with more economic opportunity even now than they were even four years ago,” he said.

Even with those notes of pessimism, O’Malley said his visits with Democrats have “made me feel pretty good about where our country is headed and the direction that we will eventually end up going. I have seen that people still believe in the greatness of who we are a county.”

“I am sensing a deep, deep hunger to get things done again as a country and as Americans,” he said. “People have a greater appetite for the unvarnished truth about the choices and costs and tradeoffs we have to make.”