Beyond campaign technicalities, Sarbanes' edge is that most Marylanders like him ELECTION 1994

November 10, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

As a Republican tide swept across the nation Tuesday, the fate of Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes, Maryland's longtime liberal senator, was never in doubt.

After a campaign in which his opponent, Bill Brock, hardly posed a threat, Mr. Sarbanes coasted to a fourth term. He did so even as Marylanders broke with decades of tradition by strongly supporting a conservative Republican -- Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey -- for governor. He also defied the national current that enabled the Republicans to take control of Congress while dumping longtime liberal Democrats such as New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

How did Mr. Sarbanes, an unapologetic New Dealer with nearly a quarter-century of experience on Capitol Hill, win so easily in such an environment?

Political observers in both parties say Mr. Sarbanes had several things going for him. He had a built-in asset in Maryland where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 advantage among registered voters. He also ran a tough, savvy campaign in which he made Mr. Brock's past the issue while emphasizing his honest image and ties to the state.

"Sarbanes is an old-style liberal, but this guy is a good campaigner," said Charlie Black, a veteran political consultant who worked for Mr. Brock as a volunteer. "I give the guy credit. [He] ran a great campaign and deserved to win."

By contrast, Mr. Brock, a former Tennessee senator, never quite connected with Marylanders or overcame his opponent's suggestion that he was a carpetbagger. He also struggled to deliver a clear message and had trouble running a disciplined, focused campaign.

"The trouble with Brock's candidacy was that it didn't offer voters enough contrast with the incumbent," said Carol Arscott, a Howard County Republican activist.

Beyond the technical issues of campaign strategy and voter registration, Mr. Sarbanes had at least one other advantage that is the envy of many longtime politicians: By and large, Maryland voters like him. A statewide poll released days before the election showed that 54 percent of likely voters viewed him favorably. In a profession where enemies tend to accumulate, such a high rating after 24 years in Congress is very unusual.

Interviews with potential voters during the final week of the campaign seemed to reinforce the poll results. As Mr. Sarbanes worked Metro stops on election eve in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, hurried commuters would sometimes walk out of their way to shake his hand and tell him what a good senator he has been.

Although many voters interviewed couldn't cite an accomplishment by the senator, neither could they think of any mistakes he had made or reasons to vote against him.

"He's never done anything bad," said Bob Thompson, 48, a taxi driver from Prince George's County. "And he's never really done anything to make me take notice."

Mr. Sarbanes' disinclination to sponsor bills and seek the limelight have earned him the nickname "stealth senator." Both Republicans and Democrats agree, however, that he has a reputation for honesty, intelligence and competence. At a time when many view politicians with cynicism, that is not a bad combination.

"In this environment, trust is important," said Michael Davis, who managed the senator's campaign.

Mr. Brock criticized Mr. Sarbanes as a tax-and-spend liberal who had done nothing for the state. Voters, however, had heard this before in past races and returned him to office anyway.

The fact that it was coming from Mr. Brock apparently gave it no more credibility, because they didn't know him even though he had a national reputation in Republican politics.

He had served Tennessee in Congress for 14 years and had been U.S. trade representative and secretary of labor during the Reagan administration. But he had only lived full-time in Maryland since 1990. Despite spending more than a million dollars of his own money on advertisements touting his accomplishments and bashing his opponent, Mr. Brock was never able to establish a state identity.

Nowhere was this more apparent than when he walked through his adopted home of Annapolis several days before the election seeking votes. As he ventured into stores in the city's historic district, it became clear that most people had never met him before, even though he has owned a home in the area since 1985.

Mr. Brock yesterday blamed some of his loss on Mr. Sarbanes' negative advertisements as well as a lack of news media coverage. He pointed out correctly that some of the issues he's most interested in, like job creation, trade and education, do not lend themselves to sound bites.

"It was difficult to get the press to pay attention to substantive issues," he said. He conceded, though, that at least one %J Republican candidate was able to do so. He cited Mrs. Sauerbrey's "magnificent" job of galvanizing voters by delivering simple message of a 24 percent tax cut.

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