Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Maryland U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

August 23, 2006
76 Days Until Election Day

Maryland U.S. Senate

Status: Democrat Open
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (East)

Outlook: Tossup (D)

This year, Maryland voters will elect a new United States Senator in their first open seat election in 20 years. The Democrats would typically be considered very heavy favorites in such a state, and they are still favored to hold this seat this year, but the Republicans are clearly in the ballgame this time around in a race that will garner much national attention and one that could be fraught with a good deal of ideological and racial polarization.

The Republican nominee will be Lt. Governor Michael Steele, an energetic and articulate candidate, who in 2002 became the first African-American elected to statewide office in his states’ history. Some viewed an uphill race for federal office in Maryland a risk for Steele, as he could have ran again as Bob Ehrlich’s running mate and set himself up for a future run for Governor, but Steele became convinced that he could beat the odds in Maryland and be elected to the Senate. Even if he fails in this attempt, he probably will remain somebody who is considered to have a very bright political future in Maryland or in some kind of role as a national spokesman for the party.

Steele is a candidate who generates genuine loyalty and enthusiasm among his supporters. He also has generated a great deal of visceral opposition by some on the left, based primary on his status as a black conservative. There have been incidents of taunts, inflammatory statements and images posted on left-wing blogs, and the alleged appearance of Oreo cookie or two in an effort to discredit Steele during his relatively brief time in the national political spotlight and in the early stages of this campaign. On another occasion, staffers for the Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committee were caught illegally obtaining Steele’s credit records.

A few months ago, a Democrat memo crafted for national and state party leaders, came to light in which the party was warned to not take Steele lightly and that Democrat research showed that Steele’s platform of conservatism on moral issues as well as economic empowerment were messages that were found to be receptive among many non-traditional Republicans, and especially among African-Americans. The report described the Steele candidacy as a “unique challenge” and warned Democrats to begin discrediting him immediately, and long before his eventual opponent is decided in a mid-September primary.

In spite of Steele’s many political strengths, his campaign has suffered some bad publicity related to campaign staff turnover and a politically embarrassing gaffe that the candidate committed in front of a Jewish group in which he unwisely compared his skepticism of embryonic stem cell research to the heinous medical experiments conducted on Jews in Nazi Europe. Steele quickly apologized for his remarks and sought to clarify them after he had been roundly criticized. Some Jewish leaders quickly expressed forgiveness for Steele’s remarks but those who would wish to keep it alive as a campaign issue probably had no intention of voting for Steele to begin with.

A few weeks back, Steele was involved in a highly publicized incident in which he was anonymously quoted by a Washington Post reporter as being extremely harsh towards Republicans and President Bush on several matters during a private D.C. lunch. People put two and two together and Steele was forced to admit that he was the Senate candidate who had said those things, while insisting that President Bush remained his “homeboy.” This incident could have served as something that would cause conservatives, especially those around the country who might have been willing to contribute to his campaign, to think badly of Steele. It was viewed as either another example of his not being ready for the political prime time by making such a mistake in thinking he would not be found out, or a calculated effort to have a story about him come out in which he dramatically distanced himself from a President and administration that is unpopular in liberal Maryland. Some evidence seems to point to the fact that it might have been a calculated move indeed, and for all we know, could have been something the White House even approved of. For whatever reason Steele chose to go that route, he has not seemed to suffer in the polls because of it. In fact, the most recent polls even show him improving his standing a bit since the incident, in which he made it very clear that if the race was simply about his being a Republican, he will lose.

As for the Democrats wishing to succeed Senator Paul Sarbanes, the field is quite crowded, but there are only two candidates who are given any chance of capturing the nomination. Congressman Ben Cardin is a longtime pol who is very experienced and highly respected, but might also be seen as bland and uninspiring. Luckily for him though, that is how the incumbent Sarbanes has always been viewed as well. Cardin’s chief opponent is former Congressman Kweisi Mfume, who is believed to have been forced out from his post as NAACP President due to alleged personal and financial misconduct, shortly before entering this race. Mfume’s campaign got off to a horrific start and many believed he would not be able to stay in the race for the long haul. For his part, Mfume has at times attempted to play the race card to an extent by criticizing party leaders, including his fellow African-Americans who were dismissive of his candidacy and quick to sign up with Cardin.

In recent weeks, there have been signs of Mfume being far more competitive in this primary than had previously been expected. Some polls show him very much within striking distance against Cardin and the most recent poll from Rasmussen Reports even shows him leading the Democrat field by a small margin. There has been some talk that Cardin has not always been as stridently against the Iraq War as possible, citing some Congressional votes, but Cardin, who is clearly concerned about that factor, has been trying to play up his anti-war bona fides as of late.

The Maryland Democrat field also includes several other candidates, some of whom happen to either have some history with winning elected office, media familiarity, or a good deal of personal wealth to spend. While none of those candidates are expected to challenge for first or second place, they might play an important role nonetheless. All of them happen to be caucasian and thus it is believed that any votes for them will be coming directly from what would have otherwise been support for Cardin. There has been speculation that the wideness of the field means that the winner of the Democrat primary may actually be nominated with just a 40 % or so plurality. If Maryland’s sizable African-American population turns out heavily and votes overwhelmingly for Mfume, that might alone be just about enough for him to win the nomination. At this point, Cardin has to still be regarded as a slight favorite to win the nomination in next month’s primary, but things have definitely tightened up and could go either way, to the delight of Republicans who have a candidate facing only token primary opposition, most notably from a candidate who proudly sports a colonial era wig as part of his campaign shtick.

Republicans would certainly prefer for Steele to run against Mfume in November, after a financially draining Democrat primary is concluded. Mfume is seen as having a lot of political baggage and has a reputation for being very personally strident. A Steele vs. Mfume race between two African-Americans would receive a ton of national attention as the first competitive U.S. Senate contest of the sort. While Mfume would win a large majority of the heavily Democrat black vote against Steele, there would also be the opportunity for Steele to score with more moderate white voters in the state who would typically vote Democrat, and would probably be voting for Cardin if he were the nominee. The most recent polls on Mfume vs. Steele show a virtual dead heat between the two candidates.

A Steele vs. Cardin contest, which as of now is still probably the most likely bet, will also feature a great deal of intrigue. Cardin would be able to do better among white voters against Steele than Mfume would, but there would be a chance that a potentially racially divisive primary result between Cardin and Mfume would have some African-American voters turned off by Cardin to the extent that they might decide to sit the election out, or even vote for the African-American Steele. That possibility is clearly what Democrats are concerned about, as seen by their memo earlier this year. There have been rumbles of racial tension bubbling under the surface in the Democrat primary and some believe that if Mfume loses, he might hold a grudge and claim that the party threw him overboard due to racial factors. If that is the case, Mfume might really have a lot of power to harm Cardin in November due to lingering resentment, whereas an immediate and strong endorsement of Cardin by a defeated Mfume could really make Democrats breathe a lot easier. In regards to the potential post-primary resentment factor, it might be worth keeing in mind that the Green Party nominee might be somewhat well-funded and perhaps the small percent of votes that he would receive could even make the difference if a Cardin vs. Steele race is extremely close.

At times this year, Cardin’s lead over Steele in polling match-ups has been as much as 14 points. While the Democrat is still ahead in every poll, that margin has been shown to have been significantly eaten into with more updated numbers now showing Steele as little as 8 to 5 points behind, indicating some signs of momentum for the Republican nominee-in waiting. The most recent Rasmussen Reports poll released last week showed the spread at 47-42 in favor of Cardin. A few months back, few would have imagined that Cardin would be having sweat out both a Democrat primary and a potential general election in the way that it looks like he currently must be. The charismatic Steele has just now started to air his first campaign ad on television which might mean that he might be capable of making further gains.

The bottom line to all this is that a Steele vs. Mfume general election contest is now certainly foreseeable. Such a race in November would have to be viewed as a true tossup with perhaps Steele having a little bit of an easier path than Mfume in winning the seat.

If Cardin is the Democrat nominee, and especially if he can unite the party and hold his own among black voters in November, the race would favor him on the basis of the fact that Maryland does not have a record of electing Republicans, particularly conservative Republicans to the U.S. Senate. It likely would not be a blowout, but Cardin would still have to be viewed as starting off the general election with the upper hand. If the landscape for Republicans looks bad nationwide on Election Day, it would be even more difficult for Steele to win, as the Democrats will do what they can to tie him to President Bush. If the most recent polling data is any indication though, Steele might have been able to put a little bit of breathing room between himself and the national Republicans, without too much angst from the conservative base in the party, as he has demonstrated the ability to cut into a polling deficit.

With about a month and a half to go, Michael Steele is an underdog who at least has a fair chance to pull off an upset and a victory by him would be one of the biggest stories of Campaign 2006, as he would likely be the only African-American Republican serving in Congress. While it still looks like it could be an uphill challenge for him, some potential storm clouds are on the horizon for Democrats in this race and anything might happen.

Steele campaign link:

2006 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 6 D, 3 R
Post-election Senate balance of power thus far: 33 D, 43 R


At 10:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Tossup (D) is overstating Steele's chances somewhat. Maybe I'd call it that if Mfume is the Democratic nominee, but, as you state, a Cardin/Steele matchup is the likelier option and that would be a Leans D, as I see it. Nearly every poll so far has had Cardin leading Steele by statistically significant, though not very large, margins so I do not see how that can be considered a true tossup.

BTW, Cardin has begun his TV advertising, a fact that you neglect to note (though you found space to refer to the alleged Oreo cookie incident from four years ago, about which Steele can't keep his story straight--not that it should be of great importance now.) That should help Cardin in his quest for the nomination since there a lot of undecided Democrats, and most of them are white moderates (Mfume seems to have most of his black voter base in hand, but lacks money for the advertising that would help broaden his support.) I'm thinking that the largest share of the undecided primary voters will break thus to Cardin, allowing him to win, but an Mfume nomination is certainly possible, especially if his supporters turn out intensely.

At 5:07 PM, Blogger sku said...

Corey, your race of the day campaigns have been pretty balanced this year (for you), much moreso than in the past. This entry is an exception, showing much more partisanship than previously.

Frankly, I find them more interesting when you really try to analyze the race in a nonpartisan way. Anyone can say they think the Republican is better than the Democrat.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger Corey said...

I am certainly not trying to be non-partisan. I could not if I tried. I am trying to be as realistic as possible though about these races. You would also see that I offer some criticism of Steele in the write up as well, focusing on his gaffes, political opportunism in bashing the President,etc.

I very much hope he wins though.

Thanks for reading.

At 3:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well the latest Gonzalez poll that came out today has Steele with 4% of Cardin (which is just outside the margin of error) and beating Mfume. So you guys complaining about this write up as being partisain because he made it a tossup are way off base. This is going to be an extremely close race to the end. Much like the Gov. Race


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