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Political Animal

The Party’s Jumping

By Brian Morton | Posted 2/1/2006

The race for the Democratic nomination to be Maryland’s next U.S. senator is starting to resemble that of a party where, as host, you’ve thrown your doors open and stopped asking for RSVPs. At any moment, you never know who’s going to come bounding up your doorstep, claiming to a be a long-lost pal, old neighbor, or bosom buddy.

It was ridiculous 10 years ago when 27 Democrats ran for Congress after Kweisi Mfume left Capitol Hill to head the NAACP. While this year isn’t quite that bad, now that seven D’s have declared interest in the nom—Mfume, 3rd District U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, American University professor Allan Lichtman, Baltimore activist and perennial candidate A. Robert Kaufman, former Baltimore County executive Dennis Rasmussen, and Montgomery County businessman Josh Rales—it’s still pretty ludicrous.

Mfume and Cardin are standard Maryland liberals, Mfume a touch more so, given his West Baltimore roots in the 7th District. Kaufman, the easiest to dismiss given his constant candidacies and lack of results, calls himself a socialist. Rasmussen, who last held office 16 years ago, claims to be a moderate alternative to front-runners Cardin and Mfume, and according to a Jan. 10 Sun article, has designed a campaign flier with the slogan “Just Right for Maryland,” hinting at a more conservative viewpoint than the rest of the candidates.

Lichtman’s web site slams Cardin for voting against bringing troops home from Iraq and for reauthorizing the Patriot Act, and calls him “the biggest percentage recipient of corporate PAC money of any national Democrat in Maryland.” The fact remains, however, that Lichtman is going to have to raise an awful lot of money to be heard statewide and make a dent in Cardin’s lead.

But the most intriguing candidate—and not necessarily in a good way—is Rales of Potomac. Here is a man who was a registered Republican from 1994 to ’04, and who claims to have seen the light before the last presidential election. Rales donated to the campaigns of GOP senators John Thune of South Dakota, who defeated former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle in one of the ugliest races of ’04, and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who won in a race that saw the untimely plane-crash death of the incumbent, Paul Wellstone, and the politicization of Wellstone’s funeral service.

During his campaign-launch speech, Rales claimed that he left the GOP because of its social agenda: “There were times when I believed that the Republican Party was more committed to fiscal discipline, but boy, do I know that was a mistake.”

Here at Animal Control, we maintain a certain amount of distrust for party switchers, especially those who have done it more than once, as Rales said he has done. To do so right before one begins a political campaign smacks of opportunism—a reason why many Democrats never warmed up to Adm. Charles Larson, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s party-switching running-mate recruit in her failed 2002 gubernatorial run. Rales acknowledged that he has been “a member of both parties at different times in my life.” So why would a Democrat trust Rales to stay with the party once elected?

Texan Phil Gramm was elected to the Senate originally as a Democrat, and when he wanted to switch parties he resigned, campaigned for his seat as a Republican and won—possibly the only recent example of a party switcher doing it the right way. Others, like former Colorado senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, took the opportunistic way out when they saw the writing on the wall. In 1995, after Republicans gained control of Congress, Campbell simply announced that he was becoming a Republican, taking advantage of all the time, effort, and finances spent on his behalf to elect him as a Democrat. After Campbell, there were others on the House side who pulled the same stunt, preferring to play with the victors in the GOP as opposed to staying with the people who elected them.

If Rales somehow manages to spend some of his considerable fortune and win both the Democratic nomination and the general election—however improbable—what assurances could he give that he would stay true to the people who gave him the job? Even Ronald Reagan used to cite one of the oldest political adages in the book: “You gotta dance with them what brung you.”

Kaufman, Lichtman, and Rasmussen all have large deficits to overcome in terms of fundraising and statewide name recognition. Van Susteren has little other than the name recognition, garnered by having a more famous sister, Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren. Mfume has to show he can raise money, and Cardin has to deal with the seven-way split ticket and the fact that he has voted for a number of bills liberals find unpalatable. But Rales has a trust deficit right at the start, and that may be the hardest hurdle to overcome.

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Political Animal archives

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The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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