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By Russ Smith | Posted 6/29/2005

As Michael Steele inches closer to formally declaring his candidacy for Maryland’s open U.S. Senate seat, it’s useful to chart the criticisms leveled against him by Democrats nervous that the lieutenant governor might actually replace Paul Sarbanes. The 2006 election is still more than 16 months in the future, and it’s not clear who Steele’s opponent will be (assuming he runs), so for now the conversation has been relatively civil.

At this stage of an upcoming election, partisans often play devil’s advocate and float advice to the opposition. It’s my feeling, as stated previously in this space, that Marylanders would be best served if Republican Steele ran against Democrat Kweisi Mfume: There are two accomplished men who hold widely divergent opinions on the national issues of the day, and the outcome would assure the state of its first black senator. Pragmatically, however, I think Rep. Chris Van Hollen (8th) is the Democrat most likely to defeat Steele; Mfume’s been tarnished by allegations of favoritism when he led the NAACP, and Rep. Ben Cardin (3rd) doesn’t have the charisma of his younger colleague.

C. Fraser Smith (no relation), the news director of WYPR-FM and Sun “Perspective” columnist, offered his own cautionary tips to Maryland’s Republican Party in The Sun on June 19. Smith counsels Steele to abandon the idea of running for Senate.

It’s true that Steele has never won an election on his own; he was defeated in a 1998 bid for state comptroller and became lieutenant governor as part of Robert Ehrlich’s ticket three years ago. Nevertheless, the “old-fashioned way” of winning office isn’t the rule today, when celebrity, wealth, and ideology can catapult a man or woman into a position of power. For example, New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, had no elective experience when he spent approximately $60 million of the money he’d earned in the financial sector to win that contest in 2000. He’s now running for governor this fall and is expected to win easily. Minnesota Sen. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, was also elected in 2000, and was able to jump over career politicians by self-financing his campaign.

On the Republican side, Arnold Schwarzenegger obviously couldn’t have become California’s governor without his Hollywood celebrity; Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning did start in the House, but was well-known because of his baseball Hall of Fame career. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg went straight from the communications industry to City Hall in 2001, largely because of his immense fortune and the endorsement of predecessor Rudy Giuliani. Not many people would argue that it’s more difficult to run New York City than deliberate in the Senate with 99 other men and women.

Reasonable Democrats, including Smith, might be put off by Steele’s culturally conservative beliefs, but I’ve yet to hear anyone criticize his intellect. So why couldn’t Steele join the august “deliberative body” in Washington?

Smith’s suggested blueprint for Maryland’s Republican Party is to keep the “attractive team” of Ehrlich and Steele together for the gubernatorial race and develop, slowly, a roster of Republicans who can be a force in years to come. Of course, that would mean conceding Sarbanes’ seat to another Democrat, since Steele is the only Republican in this state who has a chance of winning.

Such a strategy, Smith says, “would be a great long-term investment—and a refreshing change from trying to catch political lightning in a bottle.” I don’t think the Sun columnist is being purposely disingenuous; it’s more likely he simply believes in an outmoded political culture in which candidates were required to log a long elective résumé before presuming to run for the Senate.

But that’s a pipe dream. Republicans, for the first time since the 1980s, have the opportunity to add a Senate member from overwhelmingly Democratic Maryland, and they’ll campaign and spend aggressively on behalf of Steele, especially when control of that chamber could be in doubt. Some argue that Ehrlich would be hurt losing Steele as a running mate since it was his inclusion on the ticket that helped defeat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002, but the governor is now an incumbent and relatively popular. His choice for a lieutenant governor candidate isn’t as crucial as it was three years ago.

It’s far from certain whether Steele can defeat Cardin, Mfume, or Van Hollen, but Republicans would be crazy if they didn’t try to “catch political lightning in a bottle.”

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