Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi has urged fellow Republican Rep. Helen Bentley of Maryland to give up her safe Second District seat in 1992 and run for the Senate against Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski. He said at a fund raiser for her that he took a similar chance in 1988. Actually, he risked even more than she would be risking. He was House Republican whip, with the expectation of becoming minority leader.
Senator Mikulski is thought to be a strong candidate. But there are reasons to believe that a 1992 challenge to her might pay off and invigorate the Republican Party in the state:
* It will be a presidential year. That means a larger turnout than in 1986, when Senator Mikulski won the office. And there will be a new audience. Instead of just over a million voters, there will be more than 1.5 million casting ballots.
* Instead of a ticket headed by a popular governor, Senator Mikulski will be running on one that may be headed by an unpopular presidential nominee. William Donald Schaefer provided coat-tails to candidate Mikulski with his 82 percent victory in 1986. If President Bush is riding as high in 1992 as he is in 1991, he should provide coat-tails for a Republican Senate candidate, assuming she or he is well-known and well-financed. (Mr. Bush's 60 percent showing in Mississippi in 1988 helped pull Mr. Lott into the Senate with a 53-47 victory.)
* Relative Republican strength is growing in the state. Democratic registration is down 85,000 since 1986; Republican registration is up 89,000.
* There was much evidence in 1990 that a voter revolt against incumbents is building. Senators' re-election margins were much smaller than in the past. Some political scientists and journalists, taking note of 1990 state and local races and 1991 polls, predict this will be even more evident at the congressional level in 1992.
Representative Bentley and Reps. Constance Morella of the Eighth District and Wayne Gilchrest of the First ought to start thinking seriously about a Senate run by one of them. The best launching pad into the Senate is a House seat. In Maryland, Senator Mikulski in 1988, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes in 1976, Sen. J. Glenn Beall Jr. in 1970, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias in 1968 and Sen. Daniel B. Brewster in 1962 all gave up safe House seats to run and win Senate races.
Either we have a two-party system in the state or we don't. If the best Republican candidates duck hard races, we don't.