Well-heeled candidates set to vie for Senate seat

Two political novices to stress status as outsiders in bid to replace Sarbanes

August 29, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The list of contenders for U.S. Senate in Maryland will soon grow longer, as a pair of deep-pocketed candidates who will stress career success outside of politics prepare to enter the race to replace retiring Paul S. Sarbanes.

Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist who is the sister of Fox Television personality Greta Van Susteren, is scheduled to formally announce her candidacy this week. A Democrat, Van Susteren, 54, moved to Montgomery County from the District of Columbia less than two years ago.

Closing in on a similar announcement is Joshua Rales, a philanthropist and owner of a real estate investment firm. Also a Montgomery resident, Rales was a Republican for a decade until last year, but said he became disillusioned with the party's social positions and lack of fiscal discipline.

Both have retained well-known political advisers. Van Susteren is being aided by Tad Devine, a strategist who has worked for Al Gore and Bob Kerrey; and she has received training from EMILY's List, the group that supports female candidates.

Rales has hired a campaign manager and a media firm, DCO of Washington, which has worked for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Chris Van Hollen and recently helped elect the mayor of Los Angeles.

They will position themselves as nonpoliticians in the 2006 election - a contrast to the two main Democratic contenders, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former congressman and NAACP head Kweisi Mfume. Socialist A. Robert Kaufman also is in the race. On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is considering a campaign, and state and national party leaders are urging him to get in.

Rales is prepared to spend $5 million of his own money to win the Democratic nomination, which he thinks could cost up to $7 million to secure. Aides to Van Susteren say she will have the money needed for a competitive race, but have not committed to a figure. Both say they will also try to raise donations.

Throughout the country, candidates for political office coming from the private sector frequently find success. Jon Corzine spent millions of his own to become a New Jersey senator, as did Mark Warner in the Virginia governor's race.

But such candidacies have not been successful in Maryland.

"It's really a long shot," said Matthew Crenson, head of the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University. "The Senate has been known as the millionaire's club, but these days it takes more than money."

Last year, Crenson noted, Republican state Sen. E.J. Pipkin spent $2 million of his Wall Street wealth in an unsuccessful attempt to topple the incumbent Mikulski. He gained no more than the base Republican vote.

"It's not likely that they are going to make much headway against seasoned and well-known political figures like Cardin and Mfume," Crenson said.

Conventional thinking holds that a larger number of white candidates in the Democratic primary would benefit Mfume most. Blacks make up about 28 percent of the state's population, and are a higher proportion of the primary voting pool.

"The voters deserve as many perspectives as possible," Mfume said last week.

Kevin Igoe, a GOP strategist, said the expanded field is "probably minimally helpful to Mfume." Rales and Van Susteren could both tap into support that Cardin seeks: wealthy Jewish voters in the Washington region.

Van Susteran's husband, Jonathan Kempner, is president and CEO of the Mortgage Banker's Association in Washington, an influential industry group. Rales and his wife, Debbie, are major backers of Jewish social service foundations.

Both candidates would need to spend heavily to make themselves known in Maryland.

Van Susteren will be "something of an X-factor" in the race, said Christine Black, a former Boston Globe reporter and CNN newscaster who is assisting the candidate.

"Lise has to show she can hold her own," Black said. "She is articulate. She is a smart person. She cares. She has a nice life. She has three teenage daughters. She doesn't need this. She is someone who feels that it is her responsibility to get into this, to take action."

Van Susteren will campaign against the Iraq war, and thinks the administration made a "failure in judgment" about military intervention in the Middle East. She will also focus on health care and education issues, Black said.

Unlike her sister, Greta, Lise Van Susteren is not a Scientologist, Black said.

Rales, 47, said last week he will make his decision in September.

"I'm predisposed to running, and something is going to have to stop me," he said. "I have to be convinced that running isn't an exercise in futility.

"I don't think any of the candidates is particularly strong on ideas and change, which is what the country desperately needs."

Rales said he would promote a balanced federal budget within five years, improved education for poor children and more affordable health care.

Voters should not be put off, he said, by his party switch. "Let's face it. The Democratic Party, to broaden its base, has to bring in disaffected Republicans."

But even as Rales and Van Susteren fine-tune their messages and position themselves against established politicians, they enter the race as serious underdogs, political observers say.

Said Igoe, the GOP strategist: "I think they've both got a difficult climb to get into the top tier."

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