Michael Steele
Matt Houston  /  AP file
Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is trying to pull off an upset victory against Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Ben Cardin.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 10/17/2006 6:44:55 AM ET 2006-10-17T10:44:55

Will Michael Steele be the next Barack Obama? Hell no, say Democrats.

Steele, who, as the lieutenant governor of Maryland, is the highest ranking black person ever to serve in elective office in his state, is running an uphill battle to win the state’s Senate seat.

If Republican Steele defeats Democrat Ben Cardin , a 19-year House member, and Green-Libertarian-Populist candidate Kevin Zeese, he’ll join Obama as the second black member of the Senate, or perhaps the third, if Harold Ford , Jr. wins in Tennessee.

Steele has a charismatic, relaxed quality in front of television cameras. Even Democratic activists in Maryland say his TV ads have been slick and engaging.

But no Republican has won a Senate seat in Maryland in a quarter of century, and the last one to win, Charles ‘Mac’ Mathias, was a liberal, not a conservative, as Steele is.

Yet Democrats seem a bit fretful about the Maryland contest. Racial politics is a major reason why.

How racial politics plays in the Senate race
Maryland has the highest percentage of African Americans of any state outside the South, and, apart from Steele himself, blacks have been conspicuously missing from its top ranks of elected officials.

Therein lays Steele’s opportunity as the candidate of black fulfillment.

Some black Democrats were chagrined when Cardin defeated a black candidate, former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, in the party’s primary.

Referring to the historic scarcity of blacks in top Maryland offices, Steele said, “Does that translate into votes for me? I don’t know. That’s my job to convince them that I’m worth the risk in November.”

Prince George’s County, with a two-thirds African-American population, is the state's second-biggest source of Democratic votes. It is also Steele’s home turf and he told me Saturday he hopes to get 35 percent of the vote there, about 15 points better than GOP candidates historically have performed there.

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Concern about Cardin
“The (Cardin) literature is not strong enough,” complained Democratic member of the House of Delegates Joanne Benson to Democratic Party operative Artie Harris Sunday afternoon at an event in Upper Marlboro, Md. where Cardin was wooing black entrepreneurs.

“Strong Democrats in Prince George’s County don’t want to support Michael Steele, but they do need to know more about Ben,” said Benson, who represents a portion of the county.

Personality is another contrast that might favor Steele.

Cardin, a dry and detailed-oriented career legislator, was upstaged at his Upper Marlboro event Sunday by the irrepressible Rep. Steny Hoyer, who did a comedy routine about the event’s host, Cool Wave Water, and told the audience that Steele had had “a career of slavishly supporting the Republican Party.”

Black voters account for about one quarter of the state’s electorate; President Bush carried only about 10 percent of them in 2004, according to exit poll interviews.

If Steele can win 25 percent of black voters, he could pull off an upset. But that Republican hope hangs on two slender threads: one, the possibility that Steele can equal or exceed Bush’s performance among white voters in Maryland (Bush won 55 percent of them, if exit poll estimates were correct), and two, that a chunk of anti-war and independent voters choose Zeese, instead of Cardin.

Mixed reception for Steele
Steele got a mixed reception Saturday as he mingled with a mostly black clientele at a Starbucks in Largo, Md., across the street from his house.

One young African-American woman greeted Steele effusively and introduced him to her husband. The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she knows Steele from community events in Prince George’s County. The woman said she hadn’t yet made up her mind whether she’d vote for Steele.

But Yvonne Hinkson, a Justice Department attorney who lives in Silver Spring and was buying a coffee at the Starbucks as Steele left the store, is one African-American voter who disdains him. She dismissed his TV ad in which he appears with a puppy.

“I don’t care about puppies; I care about issues. Don’t insult the voters’ intelligence,” she said heatedly.

“His ads obscure the fact that he’s a Republican,” Hinkson said.

Steele’s campaign is passing out bumper stickers with “Steele” printed in capital letters on the top line and “Democrat” underneath it.

Is there a chance some Democratic voters might mistakenly conclude that Steele is a Democrat?

Steele reacted testily to that question: “Remember the term ‘Reagan Democrat’? So where’s the confusion here? Why are people making such a big deal about something that has been part of the political lexicon for over 20 years?”

Steele dismisses abortion issue
Steele also bridled when he was asked about his position on abortion. I prefaced my question by noting that abortion hasn’t played a big role in the campaign. “So why are we talking about it?” Steele demanded. “It’s in the Supreme Court. What piece of legislation in the United Senate is dealing with abortion?”

Asked whether he thought the 1973 Roe v Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide was wrongly decided, Steele said, “What has that got to do with anything? I’m a Senate candidate. My opinion on that is moot.”

But doesn’t his view on that decision help to define Steele as a candidate?

“Do not think you’re going to define me on that question; don’t even go there,” he shot back. “It’s not even a blip on the screen. That is nowhere near defining who I am. It’s not even a piece of defining who I am…. Trying to define me on this issue is ludicrous.”

The Maryland Right to Life Political Action Committee has endorsed Steele. Cardin describes himself as “pro-choice” and gets a zero rating from the National Right to Life Committee.

Likewise, Steele said the death penalty wasn’t a defining issue. More relevant, he said, are his views on everyday crime. “I know my neighbors over here aren’t talking those issues (abortion and the death penalty). They’re talking about the fact that cars are getting jacked in this neighborhood.”

Steele said that as lieutenant governor he had responded to this problem by setting up a task force which had helped cut the number of car-jackings.

Put more pressure on Iraqi leaders
On the dominant issue of the 2006 campaign, Iraq, Steele stakes out a position critical of the Bush administration, but opposed a prompt withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“I think we need to put a great deal more pressure on our friends there in the government to make sure they are picking up their piece and carrying it forward,” he told reporters after a candidate forum in Hagerstown, Md. Friday.

But he rankled under reporters’ questions. “I’m tired of this (idea that) I’ve got to justify everything the administration does or everything it doesn’t do…. I’m not going to stand here and try to be the whipping boy for the Republican Party.”

Cardin, meanwhile, is campaigning as a fiscal conservative. “You can’t continue to have all these tax cuts and you can’t continue to spend the billions of dollars we’re spending in Iraq and still be able to balance the budget,” he told the Hagerstown forum.

Cardin voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution and last year voted with his party in the House 85 percent of the time, so if you’re a Democratic voter, what’s not to like?

Zeese supplies answers: Cardin has voted to keep funding the Iraq war and even voted against a May 2005 measure by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., that urged Bush to develop an Iraq exit plan.

Zeese calls Cardin’s proposal for phased troop withdrawals from Iraq “a recipe for killing American soldiers… that’s leaving sitting targets behind.”

Zeese adds spice to this race, offering ideas never heard in the standard 2006 debate. One Zeese proposal: make the first $100,000 of income exempt from federal income taxes and offset the lost revenue by imposing a 0.1 percent tax on purchases of stocks, bonds, foreign currency and derivatives.

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