GOP seems to push for Mfume-Steele Senate race

Maryland Votes 2006

July 09, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume was fielding questions on WBAL radio when the leading Republican contender phoned in.

But instead of a scrap, what ensued was a cross-party love feast. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the GOP's likely nominee for Senate, said he wanted WBAL listeners to know just how fond he was of Mfume. Steele spoke glowingly about a recent speech on economics and development given by Mfume, a former congressman and national president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"When he got done, I went up to him, I said, `Yo, brother, you sound like a Republican,'" Steele recounted last month on the Ron Smith Show. "He just looked at me and started laughing. I said, you know, so we have this kind of relationship that is a good one, it's a strong one. I think it's good for Maryland. You have two, you know, smart, energetic, African-Americans running for the United States Senate. I think that's exciting for our state. It's certainly exciting for the country."

Based on statements similar to Steele's from other Republican party leaders, it appears that if the state GOP had its way, Steele would face off against Mfume in November - not U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 10-term congressman from the Baltimore area who has broad support from state party leaders.

There are several reasons why: Mfume has less money than Cardin, and a recent Washington Post poll shows Steele running better against Mfume than against Cardin in a general election match-up. White voters are more likely to support Steele than Mfume, polls indicate.

But some political observers say the GOP's calculation does not take into account Mfume's smooth campaign skills or the loyalty he has won from the black community over many years in public service.

"They're absolutely underestimating Mfume, and they're underestimating the Democratic tilt of Maryland," said Chuck Todd, editor of The Hotline, a daily political report.

A battle between Mfume and Steele could also remove an issue that Steele and his campaign have sometimes pushed: race and what they say is race-based politicking by state Democrats.

Democrats counter that the Steele campaign is using race as a distraction from talking about other issues - such as the minimum wage, Supreme Court nominations and abortion - where Steele's views might be more conservative than those of many Marylanders.

But if Maryland voters nominated African-American candidates from both parties, it would be a first for the state, and would limit Steele's ability to cast himself as a trailblazer.

That contest would also give voters a choice between two different black leaders: Steele, the former seminarian who has the support of President Bush and national GOP leaders; or Mfume, an unabashed liberal whose Baltimore upbringing included drug use and gang activity before embarking on a life of public service.

Republicans seem to prefer that matchup to one with Cardin, the former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates who is well-known in the Baltimore region but still building name recognition in the rest of the state.

As the Democratic primary contest has taken shape, state Republicans have routinely plugged Mfume's qualifications and attempted to finger leading Maryland Democrats for not giving him a fair shake. On Steele's campaign Web site, one of six rotating photographs is of the lieutenant governor and Mfume.

Audra Miller, the Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman, said recently on WBAL that Mfume deserves better from Democrats.

"The good old boys in the Democratic Party have made these decisions, and basically, they feel that the voters are irrelevant," Miller said. "They're going to make the choices. It's unfortunate. I think the people are robbed of a great voice. Mr. Mfume has been treated terribly by his own party."

The Steele campaign did not return requests for comment.

State Republican Chairman John M. Kane said the GOP is not necessarily stumping for Mfume but sympathizing with his plight as the party's underdog.

"I think in the particular case with Mfume and Steele, they are friends," Kane said. "I think Michael has seen that type of treatment in general, not by a political party but growing up as an African-American, and he feels for Mfume."

Mfume said he does not think the GOP is pulling for him, though he does believe his party leaders would prefer Cardin (whom he said he counts as a friend) over him. He said he was surprised by Steele's call-in on WBAL but added that he didn't mind.

"It will speak volumes about where we've come as a nation, where in a land where slavery was legal for 200 years and lynchings were legal, that we've gotten to a point that both major parties may nominate a candidate who happens to be African-American," Mfume said while he marching in a Fourth of July parade in Catonsville. "I think that's significant."

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