Howard County Maryland Blog

Local Politics and Current Events

Steele-ing Maryland

Posted by David Keelan on Friday, January 27, 2006

Steele-ing Maryland
By Dustin Hawkins
Jan 20, 2006

While Democrats have stated hopes of making headway in the 2006 elections, they have also been hammered with the reality that there are some unexpectedly tough seats to defend along the way. One pair of races – a Senate post they desperately need to hold and a governorship they wish to recapture – can be found in Maryland.

With Democrat Paul Sarbanes retiring after a 5-term stint in the Senate, the seat was immediately placed into the “Likely Democrat” column by most observers. This is, after all, a seat that Sarbanes won by a 26.5-point margin in his last election six years ago. In 2004, Maryland’s other Democratic Senator, Barbara Mikulski, won by an impressive 31-point margin while presidential nominee John Kerry carried the state by 13 points over George W. Bush.

But racial tensions have been brewing in a Democratic primary that is pitting Congressman Ben Cardin, who is white, against former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who is black. Though spokesmen for both camps have stressed that there are no racial overtones in the race, endorsements from top party figures have fallen almost exclusively on racial divisions.

As president of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume had a reputation of reaching out to Republicans to inform the Democrats that the black vote should not be taken for granted. In 2003, he nominated Condoleezza Rice for the NAACP Image Award and a year later made political overtures to President Bush in an attempt to soften the NAACP’s political walls. Yet his candidacy is hurting the Democratic Party’s chances of retaining the seat.

Had Mfume not entered the race, most of the worries of losing large voting blocs would have been avoided. Without Mfume in the mix, Cardin would have been viewed as the candidate most qualified to run for the seat and his nomination would not have been seen as yet another denial of the Democratic Party to select black candidates for higher office in statewide elections.

But by staying in the race, and as a former congressman himself, Mfume is undoubtedly a credentialed, qualified candidate. If the Democratic Party establishment dismisses Mfume, both nationally and statewide, the repercussions in the general election could be enough to swing the election. When there is only one black elected statewide in Maryland – and he is a Republican – tempers could begin to flare. This is especially true for a state that is over a quarter black and who votes overwhelmingly for one party.

Certainly, the 2002 gubernatorial elections are enough to act as a reminder of what can happen when a party is viewed as ignoring its base, and thus the Democrats’ worries of losing votes based on inner-party strife aren’t too far-fetched. Few people would have predicted that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, would lose her bid for governor in a state that had elected only Democrats for governor by wide margins for nearly four decades. Townsend was heavily criticized for turning down several prospective black running mates, instead opting to select a Republican-turned-Democrat white male to run as her lieutenant governor.

This left the door wide open for Republican Bob Ehrlich who had selected Michael Steele as his choice for lieutenant governor. In addition to various inner-party problems facing the Townsend campaign, her lackluster running mate selection seemed to seal her fate as the Ehrlich-Steele team achieved an unlikely upset, winning by 3 points. This was a nightmare scenario for Democrats. And it might repeat itself.

Steele, who is Maryland’s first black statewide elected official, is the likely Republican nominee for Senate; he has quietly slipped into decent-sized leads against both Cardin and Mfume, according to recent polls. The national Republican Party realized that Steele was their only hope of having a shot at winning and heavily recruited him for the post. As a result, Steele has been able to run a campaign without encountering opposing forces from within the party and with all effort and attention directed in advancing his campaign. Yet while Steele is unlikely to face any real primary opposition, he has had to deal with various attacks from his opponents – attacks that certainly have not helped the Democratic Party’s image and could only help Steele in the long run. Steele is not an unpopular figure in the state, certainly not for a Republican, and several incidents have been negatively perceived.

Members of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a group headed by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), illegally obtained copies of Steele’s credit report. Steele has been called an “Uncle Tom” and one liberal blog even posted a distorted picture
of him as a white minstrel in blackface. For a while, some high-profile Democratic operatives shrugged off the incidents and suggested Steele should expect such tactics. Nevertheless, the negative effects of these racially tinged tactics have only added to the Democratic Party’s woes.

In the end, the Democrats are in a double-edged sword scenario and will hit a rough patch no matter who their eventual nominee is. With the primaries almost 8 months away, Mfume and Cardin will be spending more time battling each other than they will spend time battling Steele. If Cardin wins the nomination, he will be seen as the establishment candidate and the feeling is that many of the states’ blacks will turn to Steele. At the same time, Mfume is probably a less-viable candidate and has a less-than-stellar popularity rating in the state. His nomination would likely send many Cardin voters over to the Steele camp as well.

Unless one candidate makes an early exit and allows the Democrats to avoid a rough primary, it will be a long campaign year for the blue-staters in Maryland. If both Cardin and Mfume remain competitive for the nomination, it should not be a surprise if many Democrats are unhappy with the eventual winner, and those who switched to the Ehrlich-Steele ticket in 2002, may do the same for Steele in 2006. If that is the case, Ehrlich will be quietly running in the background, hoping for there to be spillover effects as he runs for a second term as governor.

Dustin Hawkins is a political reporter.


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