The troubles hitting Maryland's health exchange could have a lasting impact by tarnishing the political image of Gov. Martin O'Malley and his handpicked successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, according to experts assessing elections in 2014 and beyond.
For O'Malley, who is contemplating a White House bid, the crisis could test his credentials as a data-driven and technologically savvy leader. Brown, who made his leadership on health care reform a selling point in his candidacy for governor, risks being overshadowed by O'Malley in publicizing efforts to repair the website.
"You have two different men hypothetically running for two different offices," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. "A lot of their futures lie in how well marylandhealthconnection.gov goes. If it tanks, if the enrollment numbers don't hit, it will hurt them."
Maryland's $107 million online insurance marketplace crashed on its launch Oct. 1, and problems continued into this week with Monday's hours-long shutdown. Plagued by technical problems and feuding contractors, the website still has not delivered on its promise to be a national model for health care.
Performance has improved in recent weeks -- 11,700 people had enrolled in private insurance plans as of Dec. 21 -- but the exchange remains well below the goal of enrolling 150,000 by the end of March. State officials have not ruled out abandoning Maryland's site and using the federal exchange instead.
"I don't think [the governor] will meet his goal of the number of people they're going to enroll," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said last week, blaming the prolonged technical problems on the contractors hired to build the exchange.
The need for both O'Malley and Brown to resolve the problems -- and appear to be leading the charge -- creates competing political interests for the longtime partners, political observers say.
O'Malley designated Brown as point man for implementing health care reform in Maryland, but the governor has taken the role of chief spokesman in announcing repairs and improvements. Before the site launched, Brown held events across the state promoting it. After it crashed, O'Malley has led all but one of the public briefings about trying to get it fixed.
"For the governor, if he weren't in front of it, it would be terrible. O'Malley needs to be the face of this," said Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary's College.
Brown's rivals in the gubernatorial race have used the botched rollout as political ammunition. Some observers said that regardless of how much Brown is working behind the scenes, the image of the governor solving problems could provide more ammo for Brown's critics.
"It diminishes Brown," Eberly said. "It's like your boss saying, 'I gave you this responsibility, you blew it, and now I'm going to step in and fix it.' And that is just a horrible, horrible image for a campaign running to be governor."
In one recent appearance, Brown stood behind a lectern in Baltimore to update reporters on the exchange. Two days later, O'Malley held a news conference in Annapolis on the same topic, arriving with sleeves rolled up, and with visual aids and colored markers in hand to provide more detail.
"Part of winning an election is having the appearance of being in command," said Richard Vatz, professor of political rhetoric at Towson University. With the governor as the public face of the repairs, Vatz said, Brown "doesn't look like a man in charge. Whatever one thinks of the governor, he always looks like he's a man in charge."
Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said the exchange's continued problems will help Republicans unseat Democrats in the General Assembly and could hurt the popularity of the state's top Democrats. GOP lawmakers have called for a special committee with subpoena powers to look into what went wrong.
State lawmakers plan to hold hearings within days of the Assembly convening Jan. 8, Miller said.
Vatz said he believes O'Malley "has tried to do Anthony Brown a favor" by letting Brown take the lead in implementing health care and by stepping forward to take the brunt of media inquires about the exchange's failures.
"At the same time, I think the governor is looking forward to national ambition," Vatz said.
Maryland's two-term governor has presented himself around the country as a tech-savvy pragmatist, a manager who relies on data to make choices and sets benchmarks to measure progress. In 2009, Governing magazine named O'Malley Public Official of The Year for his data-driven StateStat and CityStat programs that use data and technology to "relentlessly" measure government effectiveness.
Creating an online portal to give Maryland's 800,000 uninsured residents access to health care is the largest technological undertaking of O'Malley's career in public service, according to interviews with several state officials.
Last week, his federal political action committee, O'Say Can You See, sent an email blast to supporters saying the health care site had improved but was far from perfect. It asked supporters to "spread the word" that the Affordable Care Act is working in the state.
Brown and O'Malley played down the significance of being the public face of fixing the exchange.
"The governor and I continue to share the same goals and objectives that united us seven years ago: serving the people of Maryland," Brown said in a statement. "We do it to promote progress, not politics."
O'Malley defended Brown's work over the past seven years in several other state health insurance programs. "The lieutenant governor has demonstrated tremendous leadership in implementing reforms that have expanded access, reduced costs and improved care for many Maryland families," O'Malley said in statement.
The governor said "short-term kinks" in the exchange should not overshadow Brown's accomplishments.
Donald F. Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that while the image of O'Malley saving the day might temporarily bruise Brown, voters will find it irrelevant if the health exchange eventually works.
"It's a blip on a radar screen, both in the fact that the website had problems and that O'Malley stepped in to fix it," Norris said. "It will go away, and Anthony will be able to say it was a problem and we fixed it. ... If by April we're still on this issue, that's a different matter."