Mikulski likely shoo-in for a third Senate term Politics: 'Forget about it' is the message to potential candidates against her in 1998.

Campaign 1998

November 18, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Practiced political hands have two quick words of advice to those who would seek next year to unseat Maryland's junior Democratic senator, Barbara A. Mikulski: Don't bother.

"Forget about it," says former Rep. Michael D. Barnes, a Montgomery County Democrat who was drubbed by then-Rep. Mikulski in the 1986 Democratic primary. A potent fund-raiser who intends to collect and spend at least $3 million against a candidate you've probably never heard of, Mikulski should prove formidable in next year's Senate race.

The senator provides perhaps the most extreme example of the joys of incumbency for Maryland's elected federal officials. A little less than a year from next year's elections, it appears that the congressional delegation, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, is unlikely to change at all, many observers say.

"I think it'll be a status quo election, all the way," says Carol Arscott, a former Republican chairwoman in Howard County who is vice president of Mason/Dixon Campaign Polling & Strategy.

Mikulski the candidate especially revels in the advantages of being Mikulski the senator. In her two terms, she has secured a seat on the influential Senate Appropriations Committee as well as a national reputation on women's issues. Additionally, there appears to be no national discontent, like the surge that swept many Democrats from office in 1994, that could trigger an unusual level of votes against her.

A former social worker who grew up in the rowhouses near Highlandtown, Mikulski clings to her working-class Polish Catholic identity like a good-luck talisman, maintaining an accent more at home in Bawlmer's diners than Baltimore's corporate board rooms.

She has followed an instinct born of years of political activism, pushing for projects in Maryland and closely tracking her constituents' concerns and complaints, down to whether they receive Social Security checks on time.

That persona and personal touch bind the loyalty of many Marylanders, political professionals say. "For her, the campaign and Senate service are seamless," says Bob Shrum, a longtime Mikulski media consultant.

In addition, Shrum says, "She's got authenticity, she's got sincerity, she's got what some people call moxie. People understand that she's close to them. She doesn't talk like a politician. She talks like a person."

Plausible Republican candidates for Senate -- such as Rep. Constance A. Morella or Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- shy away from challenging Mikulski, who became the top vote-getter in state history when 1.3 million ballots were cast for her in 1992.

Ehrlich, a popular second-term Baltimore County congressman who has made little secret of his interest in running for statewide office, says he is content to be an active member of the Republican House majority. "It's very satisfying," Ehrlich says. "At this point in time, I'm happy in the House."

Michael H. Davis, twice the campaign manager for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, suggests another reason for Ehrlich's reticence. "He can read polls as well as anybody," says Davis, now Baltimore County's executive officer. "I don't think anyone could have a serious challenge against her."

Mikulski's name recognition, popularity and voter support remain high, recent polling suggests. For next year's elections, the only challenger who has surfaced is Thomas L. Scott Jr., 52, a Baltimore County political neophyte who runs a contracting business out of his home. He says it offends him to think that any lawmaker would go unchallenged -- particularly Mikulski, who is, he says with a touch of heat, a career politician.

"We, as a nation, need to stop attempting to drive wedges between people," Scott says. "There are unfair affirmative action programs. Class warfare is being waged. The Democratic Party has decided to drive a wedge between every distinction in the country.

"It's the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Without that wedge, without that divisiveness, they have no power."

Part of Mikulski's political genius, Republican strategists contend, is to couch a fairly liberal outlook in solidly centrist terms. Although she is tireless on meat-and-potatoes Democratic issues, such as job security and the status of senior citizens, she laces her public statements with references to patriotism and responsibility, as well. It is an approach that has frozen much potential opposition.

"The conventional wisdom is that Sarbanes is the senator who is beatable, and that Mikulski is not," says Arscott, the Republican pollster. "Her whole career, she's been a scrapper. Folks seem to respond favorably to that."

In 1996, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat whose Southern Maryland district has a conservative bent, warded off state Del. John S. Morgan, a Howard County Republican, by 57 percent to 43 percent.

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