Ehrlich ponders move to U.S. Senate in 2000 After Sauerbrey loss, he and allies hesitate to challenge Sarbanes

November 29, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Despite claiming a third term by a margin of more than 2-to-1, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. nonetheless suffered significant loss in this month's general election: his confidence that a Republican can win statewide in Maryland.

The Baltimore County Republican is considering a year 2000 bid to capture the Senate seat held since 1977 by Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes, but the surprisingly weak showing by GOP candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey in the governor's race has been taken as a major blow by Ehrlich's camp.

"Maryland is a tough state for Republicans, plain and simple," Ehrlich, 41, says. "When we do not have our act together, witness 1998, we're going to lose."

Though Sauerbrey was well-financed and faced an opponent who had lost some popularity, Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening, she lost 56 percent to 44 percent. She was beaten in three of the state's five most populous jurisdictions.

Sauerbrey's loss was discouraging to Republicans because it suggests Maryland Democrats retain their long-held dominance in state politics. Though the ranks of GOP voters and local officeholders have increased in recent years, no Republican has succeeded in a race for statewide office since Sen. Charles McC. Mathias won his third and final term in 1980.

'Lost the war'

Ehrlich, who lives in Timonium, was a co-chairman of Sauerbrey's 1998 campaign, and he energetically sought contributions and support for her throughout the state. He won 69 percent of the vote in his re-election bid, yet Ehrlich took Sauerbrey's loss as his own -- and as a measure of how difficult it would be to defeat Sarbanes.

"He kind of won the battle and lost the war," Paul Schurick, Ehrlich's campaign manager, says of his boss. "Clearly, the results of the election were a setback."

Sarbanes also doesn't look like quite the pushover Ehrlich might have hoped for. Not so long ago, state Republican operatives were derisive of Sarbanes, saying he was a "stealth senator" who showed little enthusiasm for the job. Now, Republicans say their best hope for capturing the seat is for the 65-year-old Democratic lawmaker to step down.

Rumors of impending appointments to make Sarbanes a judge or an ambassador -- which may be wishful thinking on the part of Democrats as well as Republicans coveting his seat -- have diminished.

"A race against Paul Sarbanes would be difficult," says Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican who says he has no interest in Sarbanes' job.

Sarbanes coy about race

The senator, who appears to have recovered fully from prostate cancer three years ago, has been coy about his intentions. On Monday, he told an audience of Montgomery County Democrats that it wasn't time to announce whether he'd run for a fifth six-year term in the Senate.

He campaigned this year for Glendening and Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, and he seems buoyed by the governor's convincing win this month. As for potential foes, Sarbanes says that moderate GOP lawmakers such as Mathias would be more favorably received by voters in the general election than people such as Sauerbrey who have consistently conservative records.

"They've had Republicans before who have held office, but they've been a very different breed of Republican than we have now," Sarbanes says. "It's a different Republican Party."

Former Republican Sen. J. Glenn Beall of Frostburg, who served from 1971 to 1977, was considered fairly conservative. Sarbanes defeated him handily.

"Substantial handicap'

State Democratic Party Chairman Peter B. Krauser says Ehrlich could be depicted as a hard-line conservative, although the lawmaker generally favors abortion rights and had a more moderate reputation during his eight years in the Democrat-dominated General Assembly than he maintains in the Republican-controlled Congress.

"His close identification with [retiring House Speaker] Newt Gingrich is going to be a substantial handicap in any statewide race," Krauser says of Ehrlich.

Ehrlich "has emerged as a politician with some fairly attractive options right now," said Schurick, his campaign aide. "A politician who is short of options is in bad shape."

Several options

Ehrlich's options aren't much different than they were before the election, but they are weighted a bit differently: He can pursue a career in the House. He can run for Senate in 2000. Or, given Sauerbrey's loss, he can bide his time, stay in the House, and consider a bid for the governor's mansion in 2002. His campaign accounts hold nearly $400,000, which can be applied toward a House or Senate bid.

Weeks after the election and nearly two years until the next, Schurick spends much of his time at the congressman's Lutherville campaign headquarters sifting through the state's voting returns, precinct by precinct, for glimmers of good news.

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