A Slew Of Serious Candidates, And a Few Also-Rans, Battle For Open U.S. Senate Seat
Mike Schaefer answers the door to his 16th-floor Mount Vernon apartment wearing a green French-cuffed shirt, white pants, and tan moccasins. After a brief tour of his home and cluttered office, he sits down in his kitchen for a chat. Laid out on the table are a biography of William Donald Schaefer (no relation), a picture of the two Schaefers--if not together, then in close proximity--and a pocket copy of the Constitution. Handy props, as the 68-year-old candidate for U.S. Senate lays out his campaign strategy.
It's campaign season, and, as he has been doing since leaving the San Diego City Council in 1972, Schaefer is running for something. He puts the number of elections he has participated in at "more than a dozen," but the true number is closer to 20. The bids have been spread out among states like Nevada (he says he splits his time between there and Baltimore, where he once owned the Abbey Hotel in Mount Vernon), California (where he won a 2000 U.S. Court of Appeals decision saying that just because he didn't live there didn't mean he couldn't run for a seat in the House of Representatives), and Arizona (in 2002 he lost both Arizona's Republican House primary and Clark County, Nev.'s race for public administrator).
Schaefer speaks quickly, dropping names at a machine-gun pace of people he has known or encountered, from the political (it is questionable whether Donald Rumsfeld would remember the party crasher in the next seat at Reagan's swearing-in ceremony as vividly) to the strange (of deceased diminutive actor Frank Delfino: "I knew the Hamburglar very very well"). His strategy for taking on a crowded field vying for the Democratic nomination is simple, and it's one that propelled him to a (distant) second-place finish among the 11 contenders in the 1986 U.S. Senate primary race in Maryland, when he ran as a Republican. Schaefer's secret? Have the same name as his idol Willie Don.
For those without Schaefer's obvious advantage (which, he admits, won't win him the nomination this year either--he's hoping for third in the Democratic primary), making a name for oneself in Maryland is an uphill battle.
On the Republican side (and with sincerest apologies to Daniel "The Wig Man" Vovak, who is also seeking the Republican nomination in this race), only one candidate has managed to make himself a household name: Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who holds all the cards going into the Republican primary. State GOP spokeswoman Audra Miller says, "The lieutenant governor is clearly the party's nominee--we have supported him and we will continue to support him."
The Democratic field is a bit more crowded, and political unknowns and semiknowns have to get their names out to the entire state. People aren't likely to vote for you if they don't know who you are (or, in Schaefer's case, who they think you are). And that can get expensive.
"Maryland's not the worst-case scenario, but it's also not the best," says Bruce Mentzer, whose Towson-based Mentzer Media buys television time for Republican candidates in state and national races (though this year, he says, he isn't working in Maryland). Baltimore's media market is fairly easy to deal with, he says, but to win the state you have to reach the Washington suburbs, and that can be more than twice as expensive.
The two Democrats leading every poll to date, 3rd District U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume, former congressman and former president of the NAACP, have the easiest time of it. Cardin, whose financial backers include Washington power-players and traditional Democratic stand-bys such as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, had, at last report, raised $5 million to get the word out. Mfume, whose campaign is considerably less well-funded, has the advantage of having been a national player, at the NAACP and earlier as leader of the Congressional Black Caucus. The polls taken as of this writing all have Cardin and Mfume in a close race for the Democratic nomination, with Cardin beating Steele by a wider margin in the general election. A Wall Street Journal poll released last week bore that out, adding that Bethesda businessman Josh Rales would beat Steele by an even narrower margin (within the survey's margin of error).
Larry Sabato, in an e-mail from the University of Virginia where he heads the Center for Politics puts it this way: "The Democratic contest is boiling down to a two-man race, Cardin v. Mfume." Sabato, who taught Democratic candidate Rales in the late 1970s, says his former student has "an outside shot. None of the other candidates are serious factors."
As of the last report available, Rales has given more than $5 million of his own money to fund his campaign. He heads the real-estate investing firm RFI Associates and an associated charitable foundation. Last year the RFI Foundation gave out around $350,000 worth of grants--to mostly educational, Jewish, and arts-related charities, including $15,000 to Baltimore's Living Classrooms Foundation for its Crossroads Middle School.
Rales says that, if elected, he would make education his "absolute No. 1 priority."
"We need to get a debate going, rather than the same old politics as usual," Rales says. "It's abysmal. There's no other word to describe the schools in Baltimore. It's abysmal."
Matthew Crenson, a political professor at Johns Hopkins University, and a Democrat, says that "Cardin and Mfume are practically in a dead heat. If other candidates like Josh Rales or Allan Lichtman can pull some percentage of the Democrats to support them, then Cardin is going to be in serious trouble, and that could give the Democratic nomination to Mfume. If that happens, Steele is going to be in a very good position to win."
That doesn't sit well with Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University who has taken out a second mortgage on his Bethesda home to fund his campaign.
"This isn't Cardin's seat, this is the people's seat" Lichtman says. "We're not taking anything away from anyone. The people have the right to decide."
It's mid-morning at the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Lombard Street. Lichtman's bright yellow school bus is tucked around the corner as the candidate and a handful of sign-waving volunteers take to the median strip to spread the word to passing traffic. Lichtman, who co-authored a book called The 13 Keys to the Presidency and has been a consultant to Ted Kennedy and Al Gore, isn't bothered by the polls. He says his vote will come from younger folks--the type who aren't reached by the pollsters, either because most surveys take their sample from the pool of likely voters, or because younger people are more likely to use cell phones, which have unlisted numbers. Lichtman uses a different standard: To date, he has almost 3,500 "friends" on his MySpace page.
On the subject of Cardin, Lichtman is animated: "He's taken money from some terrible special interests--Constellation [Energy], business PACs." (A few feet away, press secretary Lindsay Miracle interrupts: "Allan, wave as you talk.") The candidate continues, waving: "If you think things are pretty good in Washington, maybe need a little tinkering, Cardin's your guy."
Mfume? "He's no less a part of the establishment than Cardin."
"Steele's going to be a formidable contender," Lichtman says. "Cardin thinks you win an election by saying, `We're Democrats and they're not.' This is the model of old-line politics that has driven this party into the ground."
In speeches and in person, Lichtman compares his campaign to that of Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota college professor who mounted a successful underdog campaign for Senate in 1990. Underfunded and outgunned, Wellstone made use of a quirky personality and inventive television ads to propel his campaign. Though the ads had limited runs, they were funny enough to make the nightly news, guaranteeing them a wider audience than Wellstone could have afforded. In this respect, though, observers say the Maryland campaigns have come up short.
"They've been playing it very safe. Very safe," says local Democratic direct-mail consultant Arthur Murphy. "I haven't seen anybody really taking risks."
Lichtman proved himself willing to take risks on Aug. 31, when he, his wife, and a supporter were arrested for trespassing while protesting his exclusion from a televised debate between Cardin and Mfume at Maryland Public Television studios in Owings Mills. The event was called a political stunt by some observers, but press secretary Miracle says it was anything but.
"No one in this campaign wanted to see Allan arrested, or [his wife] Karyn [let alone] a supporter," she says. "We never expected this from Maryland Public Television."
Miracle says Lichtman was released a few hours later, and despite an offer by Rales to post bail for the three, none was necessary.
Murphy laments the "missed opportunity" of Dennis Rasmussen (Murphy's firm, the Democracy Group, worked on the Rasmussen campaign, although Murphy says he was not involved). The former Baltimore County executive has been waging his campaign, he says, "from the common-sense middle."
"It's no use crying over spilt milk," Murphy says, but if Rasmussen "had spent more money and had the message properly crafted," he could have gone far with moderate Democrats.
Rasmussen isn't willing to admit defeat yet. He says he's looking for support from moderates. "Our challenge is to let voters know there's an alternative," he says. "The media decides early on that there are only two candidates and begin polling for only those two candidates. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Partisan politics, Rasmussen says, have disenfranchised voters from both political parties. He cites the growing number of independent voters in Maryland as evidence of the trend. "Most people are in the middle," he says.
Other candidates have cited the Senate race in Connecticut as evidence of a broader dissatisfaction with the Bush administration. Businessman Ned Lamont won the Democratic primary in that state by taking incumbent Joe Lieberman to task for his position on the Iraq war and his willingness to work with President Bush. Rasmussen draws a different lesson.
"I think Lieberman wins that race," he predicts. Rasmussen says he would not support an "arbitrary" time line for withdrawing troops from Iraq. "I don't support the war," he says. "But we're there. Just to pull out now would be a huge mistake."
Other Democratic candidates have laid out specific time lines for withdrawal; most would have troops out of Iraq by the end of next year.
On the Republican side, Steele, after a few on-the-record/off-the-record missteps, has clarified his position on troop withdrawal in a posting on his web site: "I do not support a `cut and run strategy.' Any politician out there talking about time lines and timetables is playing into the hands of our enemies who have an enormous capacity to wait."
On Iraq, Murphy says, "there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the candidates."
Maryland's open Senate seat, vacated this year by Paul Sarbanes, has long been considered safe for Democrats (Sarbanes has won with roughly 60 percent of the vote in every election since 1976), and Democrats still outnumber Republicans on Maryland's voting rolls. But with Democrats seeking to gain control of Congress (and Republicans looking to keep it), and only 11 Senate seats separating them, a Republican victory here could have a significant impact. "It's only important if it gets close," Sabato says.
Crenson says the race got a lot closer when hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons endorsed Steele. That "gives him an opening to appeal to additional African-American voters that he wouldn't have appealed to before, especially younger voters," Crenson says.
So far, voter interest doesn't seem to have been piqued--registration has remained "pretty light," says Maryland State Board of Elections director of registrations Mary Cramer Wagner, who expects to see a spike before the general election. Lack of competition in the gubernatorial primary could mean lower interest (and lower turnout) on Sept. 12, political observers say.
For Schaefer (that's Mike, not William Donald), who has been trying to draw attention with his ubiquitous yard signs (he pays $3 a pop for putting them up, according to his ad on Craigslist), Sept. 12 will have a significance beyond just another election day. His attention also will be turned to his other home in Nevada. That's his next date with that state's bar association, from which he has been trying to regain his law license since 2001, when it disbarred him.
Schaefer's main contribution to the 2006 election may prove to be in Texas, where the U.S. Court of Appeals case he brought in California was used to keep Tom DeLay's name on the ballot, despite DeLay's claims that he didn't live in Texas anymore.
Asked why he keeps entering political races, Schaefer's answer is simple: "I've just always wanted to be in Congress."
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