Advocates see the success or failure of the push as "a bellwether of things to come," says Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition To Abolish The Death Penalty. Although she concedes the death penalty is still an emotional issue for many people, she thinks lawmakers are increasingly using a more objective lens. Success in Maryland could provide a template for repeal efforts elsewhere.
Of course, the personal stakes are much higher for O'Malley than just checking a long-held goal off his to-do list. A victory would add to his political momentum as he gathers his forces for the presumed 2016 battle, and would give him another notch in his undeclared race for political accomplishments against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is expected to be a rival for the Democratic nomination. Conversely, a defeat in the House of Delegates -- after years of trying, and after getting the bill so close to the finish line -- could make him look weak and hurt him.
Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic political consultant, says the death-penalty issue could be especially helpful in a primary dominated by progressive interest groups. "Being against the death penalty is a winning position in a Democratic primary electorate," Devine says, because it "plays really well to a progressive audience in Iowa." It's also an important signal to black voters, since African Americans are sentenced to death at disproportionate rates in the United States. There also is less fodder for negative ads on the issue than might be expected. As Republican consultant Rick Wilson points out that, unlike many other states, Maryland hasn't produced "any horrendous death penalty cases [that have become] nationally relevant," so O'Malley doesn't have any glaring weak spots for national attacks.
Even so, O'Malley still faces one serious political risk, even if he signs the bill into law: the majority of Maryland voters who still favor the death penalty. State law allows for referenda, and it's widely expected that death-penalty repeal will be put to a vote in 2014. Though legislative action might help shift the politics, there's precedent for reversals, even in deep-blue states: Last year, California voters overturned a state ban on executions. A dramatic rebuke by voters in November 2014 would mean the demise of one of his signature pieces of legislation, just 14 months before the Iowa caucuses.
Assuming the matter comes to a referendum, the debate won't just be about whether some crimes deserve the ultimate penalty or if the state should ever take human life. Instead, it will most likely track the national debate over the past decades, focusing as much on the dull numbers of the accuracy of DNA testing and the relative cost of a death sentence versus life without parole.
And for O'Malley, the political risk won't be that he'll look weak on crime; it's that he'll look weak politically for losing a vote. Americans' views on the death penalty have changed -- but the yardsticks that pundits use to measure political viability have remained constant.