Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin turned back a strong challenge by Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele yesterday to keep Maryland's open seat in the U.S. Senate in the Democratic column.
A beaming Cardin spoke to cheering supporters at the American Visionary Art Museum in Federal Hill at about 11 p.m.
"How sweet it is," he said from a stage he shared with his wife, Myrna Cardin, and Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, whose retirement after five terms in the upper chamber created the vacancy.
Cardin, a 10-term congressman from Baltimore County who had campaigned as an agent of change in Washington, rode widespread voter dissatisfaction with President Bush and the national GOP to apparent victory in his first statewide campaign.
Cardin had worked throughout the race to tie the charismatic Steele, a rising star in the national Republican Party, to unpopular Bush administration policies on Social Security, embryonic stem cell research and the war in Iraq.
"This really is about the people of Maryland, and I am humbled that they have given me the opportunity to be the new United States senator," said Cardin, 63.
Moments earlier, Steele had said it was too early to concede defeat. He asked supporters at the Comfort Inn in Bowie to stick around while votes were counted.
"I'm not giving up this fight just yet, folks," he said. "You have worked too hard. You have had too many arguments with family members and neighbors and friends for us to slow this train down now."
In addition to votes being counted last night, Steele was pinning his hopes on closing the gap when 192,000 absentee ballots are counted beginning tomorrow.
The race for Maryland's first open Senate seat in 20 years has been seen as a battle between style and substance, pitting the telegenic Steele and his pledges to be a new kind of politician against the policy-oriented Cardin and his four decades as a legislator in Annapolis and Washington.
Attorney and activist Kevin Zeese, who was supported by the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties, was a distant third.
Steele, 48, who trailed in most polls throughout the contest, appeared to tighten the race in recent weeks with his performance in a series of televised debates - including an appearance broadcast nationally last week on NBC's Meet the Press - in which he appeared more at ease than his opponent.
The first African-American to win statewide office in Maryland, Steele introduced himself with a series of slick television advertisements in which he appeared alongside a black-and-white Boston terrier. In the negative campaign to come, he warned, his opponents would even claim that he hated puppies.
"For the record," said Steele, mugging for the camera, "I love puppies."
But some voters were turned off by those spots. Rob Schwartzberg, a Bethesda Republican, voted for Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday. But he said Steele had failed to clearly state his position on the issues. Schwartzberg called the puppy ads "unprofessional" and "cutesy."
"I normally would want to see a black Republican succeed," the 44-year-old private investor said outside Walt Whitman High School. "Having said that I thought his campaign commercials were horrendous."
He voted for Cardin.
Cardin faced challenges of his own. A lawyer with expertise in pension reform and international trade, nuts-and-bolts issues that don't lend themselves to clever 30-second ads, he struggled to convince voters of his legislative muscle.
But he was able to rely on a network developed over 40 years in politics, anti-Republican sentiment and the 2-1 advantage in voter registration that Democrats enjoy in Maryland. He called in the biggest names in Democratic politics, including former President Bill Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, to energize the party base.
Cardin also had the edge on issues of interest to Marylanders. Nearly two-thirds of voters yesterday said they disapproved of the war in Iraq, and nearly half said they disapproved strongly, according to exit polls conducted for news organizations by Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International. About one-third said the war was extremely important in deciding their vote in the Senate race.
Cardin voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution, and has described plans to begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
The congressman's views on several social issues - including his support for embryonic stem cell research, featured prominently in a television ad starring the actor Michael J. Fox - also appeared to help him. Steele, a former Catholic seminarian, opposes both abortion and embryonic stem cell research that destroys the embryo.