Steele could have an edge

Senate: In a face-off with Mfume, the Republican might draw more of the needed white votes.

March 20, 2005|By David Lublin and Thomas F. Schaller | David Lublin and Thomas F. Schaller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SEN. PAUL Sarbanes' pending retirement raises the tantalizing possibility that Maryland will soon become only the fourth state ever to send an African-American to the U.S. Senate.

Former congressman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume has declared himself a Democratic candidate. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is the most likely contender for the Republicans. A battle between two African-Americans for Maryland's first open Senate seat in 20 years would make for a major national political story in 2006.

Who would be favored in a Mfume-Steele matchup?

Maryland is a blue state where no Republican Senate candidate has broken 41 percent since 1980. Yet, despite many Democratic advantages, including the overwhelming support of African-Americans, Steele would be the favorite. The reasons why have less to do with either man's qualifications than with the dynamics of racial voting.

Democrats have dominated Maryland for so long because crossover politicians like Sarbanes, Barbara Mikulski and William Donald Schaefer have been able to satisfy the liberal and moderate wings of their party. Parris N. Glendening's narrow win in the 1994 gubernatorial race revealed the first cracks in this winning coalition, and his 1998 re-election during a surging economy masked these underlying tensions.

By 2002, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's failure to reach well beyond the liberal wing based in Baltimore City and the nearby Washington suburbs paved the way for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to become Maryland's first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew.

So, the first probing question Democrats should ask Mfume is this: How will you repair that breach to build a winning majority?

Retired from electoral politics for nearly a decade, Mfume developed a national profile by reviving the NAACP. Although his NAACP presidency comforts liberal Democrats predisposed to his candidacy, that resume item will appeal far less to moderate Democrats and might even hurt him. Surely, suburban and exurban voters - not to mention more rural Democrats from Western Maryland, Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore - will be a tough sell for Mfume, who has yet to prove he can attract votes beyond his West Baltimore base.

The Republicans have run a black candidate for the Senate from Maryland to little avail. Former Ambassador Alan Keyes ran unsuccessfully against Mikulski in 1992 and Sarbanes in 1988. Although 1988 was the last time a Republican presidential candidate carried Maryland, Keyes won only 38 percent of the vote that year .

Republicans hope Steele can do better - not because he will attract more African-American votes, but because he can draw more white votes.

"Republicans have a race problem," Faye Anderson, a former vice chair of the Republican National Committee's minority outreach committee, told The Washington Post in April. "The white swing voters will not support a party that appears harsh, so they use black and brown faces to appeal to white voters."

In 2002, the Ehrlich-Steele ticket performed unimpressively in Baltimore City and Prince George's County - Maryland's two majority-black jurisdictions. Although Steele hails from Prince George's, Ehrlich-Steele received a smaller number and percentage of votes there than unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey did in either 1994 or 1998. In Baltimore City, they did no better than Sauerbrey in 1994 and improved only slightly upon her weaker, 1998 showing - and that tepid success surely redounds more to Ehrlich, who represented parts of the city in Congress, than Steele.

As for his experience, Steele is vulnerable to precisely the lack-of-qualification attacks Ehrlich used against Townsend. "Lieutenant Governor, with all due respect, ma'am, you've never been elected to anything at any time on your own," said Ehrlich during the lone 2002 gubernatorial debate. "This is serious business. You've never voted on war or abortion or tort reform or the budget or anything."

Steele's resume now is thinner than Townsend's was then. After dropping out of seminary, Steele became an associate in a Washington law firm specializing in financial investments for Wall Street underwriters, before heading the Maryland Republican Party. In terms of voter turnoffs, Washington lawyers, Wall Street financiers and party flacks are tough occupations to beat. Steele has been all three.

If Steele ran against a formidable centrist Democrat - that would probably mean a white candidate - in the general election, he would struggle, especially if that Democrat came from the Baltimore area, the suburbs of which contain most of the state's swing voters.

Against Mfume, however, Steele has a real chance to win because he can peel away significant numbers of moderate white voters wary of voting for a liberal, black Democrat. Meanwhile, as a Republican, Steele is insulated against the wariness some white voters exhibit toward black Democrats.

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