Sauerbrey poised for new race

Her aspiration for U.S. House seat sparks GOP hopes

February 11, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The message that would accompany Ellen R. Sauerbrey's political resurrection is locked in her mind and ready to spring.

Voters in suburban Baltimore, Harford and Anne Arundel counties need a climate that allows individuals to succeed, she would tell them. That means smaller government, a strong economy and making sure "people aren't taxed to death."

On a bright winter morning seven months before the primary, the only audience for her ideas is a German shepherd, Hans, celebrating his 11th birthday as he lunges around her 19th-century farmhouse in Baldwin.

But Sauerbrey, the standard-bearer of the Maryland Republican Party for the last two elections, the woman who came within a whisper of becoming governor in 1994, is ready for her next race.

If Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County runs for governor this year, Sauerbrey says she will seriously consider seeking election to his 2nd District congressional seat.

"I miss having the voice," she said. "I've never gotten over being a teacher and wanting to impart ideas. I miss being in the middle of public policy debates."

With her name recognition and strong party support, Sauerbrey, 64, would immediately become a leading contender in a GOP primary. And though the district's lines have been redrawn to make it less friendly to a Republican, she would pose a serious threat to Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the term-limited Democrat who is also looking at the race.

"There is such a pent-up sentiment about what happened in 1994," state GOP Chairman Michael S. Steele said of Sauerbrey's continued appeal to many voters. She lost to Glendening that year by fewer than 6,000 votes in an election marred by recounts and accusations of fraud. "A lot of people felt she was done wrong," Steele said.

But Ehrlich has not committed to run for governor, even though he increasingly sounds and looks like a candidate. And Democrats in Annapolis still have to approve the district's new boundaries. So for now, Sauerbrey must wait.

Wait for someone else's decision before raising money and organizing volunteers. Wait for district lines to be made final.

"Time is short," she said late last week, dodging the question of whether she is irked by Ehrlich's indecision. "I'm keeping my powder dry."

She is considering other options. There is talk, for instance, of a possible appointment in the Bush administration.

Still, Sauerbrey says she yearns for a return to elective office, and says the 2nd District seat is the only one she would consider.

She relishes the prospect of serving in a legislative body as a member of the party in power - something she never knew during her 16-year Maryland General Assembly career.

In the three-plus years since Glendening defeated her by 10 percentage points in their 1998 rematch, Sauerbrey has stayed active.

A Republican national committeewoman, she traveled to Geneva last year as an appointee of President Bush to a six-week human-rights mission. She has also tended to her recently widowed mother, and continued to refurbish the 1845 Georgian home that sits on 43 bucolic acres.

If she runs for Congress, the stakes will be high. The GOP is trying to preserve a six-vote majority in the House of Representatives during next fall's mid-term elections, a time when the party that does not control the White House traditionally makes gains.

Through the congressional redistricting process, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has made no secret of his desire to eliminate two of four Republican members of Maryland's delegation. Between the crosshairs: Ehrlich and Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County.

"It's very, very important to me that we keep that seat," she said, speaking of the 2nd District. "I feel a strong responsibility to see that it stays in Republican hands."

So does Ehrlich. As he inches toward the governor's race with speaking appearances far from his home base and a campaign fund-raising machine in full gear, he says he is under pressure from national Republicans to make sure a GOP successor is possible before he leaves Congress.

A poll last week, paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee, tested the strength of Sauerbrey, Del. James F. Ports Jr. and former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley in potential match-ups against Ruppersberger.

"We think we have a very good opportunity to keep that seat," said Carl M. Forti, a spokesman for the national committee, who said he had seen early poll results but would not release them.

Despite Glendening's efforts to pack the district with Democratic voters, "it wasn't nearly as bad for us as people were saying it was," Forti said.

Sauerbrey would face hurdles if she enters the race, most notably that she would not reside in the district she seeks to represent. Members of Congress are not required to live in their districts, though making such a run could pose problems politically.

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