KKT for Senate? A real longshot

October 05, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

THE LATE Louis L. Goldstein, Maryland's perpetual-motion campaigner, defined what it meant for him to be a Democrat:

Someone asked, he said, if he'd vote for the Democrat even if the Democrat was the devil.

"Well," he said, "not in a primary."

In a Democratic primary, he'd have only Democrats to choose from. No problem there. He wouldn't be forced into an unholy alliance. But if the Democratic nominee in the general election were the devil, he'd be happily pulling on asbestos gloves as he went into the polling place.

That, of course, was Louie. But Louie's gone, and many of his party's members are not as lock-step loyal as they once were. We know this because a Republican, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., sits in the governor's mansion, the first GOP occupant in 36 years. He couldn't have won without Democratic votes. Lots of them.

So, the party of Louie has to find its way in a political world where winning demands more than party label. Democrats have to sort through a field of candidates beholden to little more than their own aspirations. The party, such as it is, has to find candidates it can unite behind. It has to hope for strong tickets, top to bottom. It won't be easy because there's plenty of talent -- and lots of potential for intra-party unhappiness. There's going to be less room for elder party also-rans.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the lieutenant governor who lost to Mr. Ehrlich last year, probably won't run for governor again. In fact, she probably won't run for anything, despite a recent mini-stir about a U.S. Senate race. She's got too much to overcome.

Some Democrats invoked a version of the Goldstein loyalty rule last year when they voted for her in the general election, though about 100,000 of them chose a grocery clerk over her in the party primary. Her campaign was poorly conceived, and she seemed unprepared -- even after eight years as lieutenant governor.

Still, as such matters go in politics, someone in her camp apparently has been suggesting that she might run for the Senate in 2006. She's a fine lady, but, like former Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, she's almost certainly off the roster because her party has to go in another direction. Mr. Hargrove actually had a track record, but he got shown the door after four losing seasons.

In politics, with some notable exceptions, you don't get a second chance. Parties that want to win don't want encores from big losers. It's harsh, but there it is.

Beyond the general disqualifier, Ms. Townsend would have to step past Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who is more than likely to run for a sixth term when he's up for re-election in 2006. And if he doesn't run, there'll be a long queue of strong potential successors.

It's too early for Mr. Sarbanes to announce his intentions. His Maryland colleague, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, is up for re-election in 2004. And it's bad form -- outside the bounds of political courtesy -- for one senator to be announcing or raising money while his or her partner is taking care of more immediate business.

The reports that Ms. Townsend might run in 2006 may have been floated by loyalists who, as one Democrat put it, "would throw themselves in front of a train for her." It's a testament to her, but maybe not the wisest maneuver unless there's a taste for getting run over.

If true believers are floating such an idea without informing Mr. Sarbanes and other Democratic leaders -- and several of them said they hadn't heard a word -- they're showing some of the same insular behavior that led to their 2002 defeat in a state where Democrats still hold a 2-1 voter registration edge over Republicans.

The mere act of floating a possible run would be a deeply flawed gambit. Names can be potent, but the 2002 race for governor of Maryland showed that even a Kennedy can be beaten if the voters perceive there's no real argument behind the name. If you're really going to run, one insider said, you want to do it as if you're compelled to address some problem or other: lack of leadership, whatever.

There's a picnic this weekend during which Ms. Townsend wants to thank her friends and campaign workers -- a fine way to spend a fall afternoon so long as no one's imagination gets out of control. Ms. Townsend and her faithful surely know that voters who'll take a "yellow dog" or Beelzebub if they're wearing a Democratic label are a vanishing breed.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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