Is Sarbanes' Senate seat safe? Vulnerability may only be myth

July 10, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said yesterday that Republicans could "cut the Clinton term in half" if the GOP regains control of the Senate next year by winning seven seats held by Democrats.

If Mr. Dole is counting on a victory in Maryland, where Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes will be running for his fourth term, he is counting on a long shot indeed.

Perhaps encouraged by a belief that Mr. Sarbanes is more liberal than his state and by the low profile that has wags and editorial writers calling him the "stealth senator," Republicans again are talking about the 60-year-old senator's vulnerability.

State and national GOP officials insist they have a real chance of defeating the three-term liberal Democrat next year. That would be particularly true, they add, if Mr. Clinton is in political trouble next year because of a sputtering or deteriorating economy or because new federal taxes have begun to bite.

"If we get a good candidate, he'll have a race on his hands," promises David M. Carney, deputy executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Of the Senate Democrats whose terms expire next year, Mr. Sarbanes "is the No. 1 supporter of Clinton," says Mr. Carney, foreshadowing GOP efforts to tie Mr. Sarbanes to an unpopular president.

Twenty-one of the 56 Democrats in the Senate face re-election in 1994. Mr. Carney considers a half-dozen "very vulnerable" and another 12 or 14, including Mr. Sarbanes, "potentially vulnerable." While the GOP would like to win control of the Senate, he says it is looking "realistically" at gaining two or three seats in the Senate.

Republicans talking

A number of Maryland Republicans are talking about the Senate race, and one has filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission. He is C. Ronald Franks, a dentist and first-term member of the House of Delegates from Queen Anne's County, who is given little chance of unhorsing the incumbent.

For the GOP to have a realistic hope of ending Mr. Sarbanes' 24-year career on Capitol Hill, the party will have to come up with a better known candidate with the ability to raise substantial sums of money.

Mr. Carney and Joyce Lyons Terhes, chairwoman of the Maryland GOP, talk -- fantasize may be a better word -- about Rep. Constance A. Morella, the popular Montgomery County Republican who seems to have a lock on her seat and is showing no inclination to give it up. "She has no desire or interest in challenging Sarbanes," says Mary Anne Leary, Mrs. Morella's press secretary. "She's very satisfied where she is and is staying put."

But, maintains Ms. Terhes, "I don't think she's closed the door."

National Republican figures have "been pursuing Mrs. Morella to take a strong look at it," says Mr. Carney.

His dream ticket is Mrs. Morella running for the Senate with Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, Maryland's senior Republican, as the gubernatorial candidate.

"That ticket would be strong statewide," he says.

For months, Mrs. Bentley has been pondering a race to succeed Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and her indecision has delayed state GOP officials' efforts to put together a strong top-of-the-ticket slate for next year's election.

Mr. Carney says he expects Maryland Republicans to have a strong ticket by December.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sarbanes, who began this year with less than $13,000 in his campaign kitty, has quietly begun raising money for his as-yet unannounced re-election campaign. He now has about $300,000, the senator says.

In his 1988 race, he spent $1.5 million to defeat Republican Alan Keyes. Last year, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski spent nearly $3.2 million in handily winning re-election against Mr. Keyes, who has shown no signs of wanting to take on Mr. Sarbanes again.

Undefeated as candidate

Talk of his vulnerability is not a new phenomenon for Mr. Sarbanes. But his undefeated record as a candidate suggests he is anything but. He was a one-term state delegate in 1970 when he took on an entrenched incumbent to win election to the House of Representatives. Two years later, Gov. Marvin Mandel and the General Assembly crafted a redistricting plan that placed Mr. Sarbanes in the same district with another entrenched incumbent, who then decided to retire rather than face Mr. Sarbanes.

In 1976, he ran for the Senate, defeating former Sen. Joseph D. Tydings in the Democratic primary and then unseating incumbent J. Glenn Beall -- who had ousted Mr. Tydings in 1970 with the help of Richard M. Nixon's White House -- in the general election.

Mr. Sarbanes is frequently overshadowed by the seemingly more energetic -- and also liberal -- Ms. Mikulski, who won her second term last year by a landslide.

But he is considered a good campaigner with a seasoned political organization and the ability to raise substantial sums of money, much of it from the nation's Greek community. He sometimes manages to turn his deliberately low-key, even professorial style to his advantage.

Last month, he was the first guest on a new monthly hourlong call-in show from Washington that is carried by cable television systems throughout Maryland.

One of the callers brought a smile to the senator's face when she spoke of the "sober and reflective qualities you bring to the national debate."

She added, "You certainly aren't going to win any contests as Senator Excitement. But then, it isn't necessarily excitement that we're looking for."

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