The Republican Party faces one of its most difficult tests in Maryland this year even though the GOP statewide ticket is easily the strongest it has been in 40 years.
Four years ago, Rep. Robert Ehrlich was elected governor, becoming the first Republican elected to the post since Baltimore County Executive Spiro Agnew, running as a liberal, won in a three-way race in 1966. Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, as Ehrlich's running mate four years ago, was the first black elected to statewide office in Maryland in modern times. This year Steele is running for the U.S. Senate. He is by far the most competitive GOP Senate candidate in the state since 1980, the last time a Republican was elected to the position.
Still, Ehrlich and Steele have long, uphill battles ahead of them. Baltimore Sun polls released this week showed Ehrlich trailing the Democratic nominee, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, by six points, and Mr. Steele trailing Rep. Ben Cardin by 11 points. These numbers aren't that bad when you consider that four years ago, Ehrlich came from 27 points behind to win the gubernatorial election, and that Maryland Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in registration by nearly 2-1, have been routinely winning Senate races by 20 to 30 points or more for the past two decades.
O'Malley is a doctrinaire liberal with a disconcerting tendency to whine and blame Ehrlich or President Bush anytime he believes that insufficient money is being funneled into Baltimore. At one point, he said Bush's approach to homeland security worried him more than the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. But for all his flaws, O'Malley is a skilled politician. Handsome and charismatic, O'Malley is widely thought to have national political ambitions -- which would suffer a near-fatal blow if he loses to Ehrlich.
Aside from his occasional petulance, the biggest obstacle to an O'Malley victory in November is the fact that Baltimore is a disaster area, wracked by crime and a dysfunctional, violent public school system. Indeed, before he dropped out of the Democratic race in June after a diagnosis of clinical depression, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan was cutting into O'Malley's lead with a hard-hitting series of advertisements spotlighting these very problems. But with Duncan gone, the state Democratic Party is united in doing all it can to whitewash the problems in Martin O'Malley's Baltimore.
THAT'S WHERE THE GENERAL Assembly comes in. The mayor has no better political allies than the Democrats who run what may be the worst legislatures in the country: Senate President Mike Miller and House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch. This year, when the state Board of Education tried to take over 11 failing city schools in order to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, the General Assembly moved into action -- not to actually fix things, but to spare O'Malley the embarrassment of a state takeover. It passed, over Ehrlich's veto, legislation barring the takeover, thereby ensuring that the bureaucrats and teacher's unions that did so much to create the current situation remain in charge.
Time and again during the past year, the legislature, where Democrats command a 98-43 majority in the House and a 33-14 advantage in the Senate, has passed one bad bill after another over the governor's veto, including an early-voting scheme skewed towards increasing turnout in heavily Democratic precincts; a minimum-wage increase; and legislation that would impose a special tax on Wal-Mart to fund Medicaid. In an effort to blame Ehrlich for utility rate increases that followed a 1999 "deregulation" plan put into effect by the Democrats, the General Assembly overrode Ehrlich's veto of a bill firing his appointees to the state Public Service Commission (the Wal-Mart and PSC measures were subsequently overturned by courts).
Ehrlich's record is more mixed when it comes to crime. The governor, for example, has pushed through legislation toughening penalties on child predators. But his state corrections chief is a woman named Mary Ann Saar, a liberal 1960s-leftover type who has overseen RESTART -- a controversial drug rehabilitation program in state prisons. Prison guards (whose unions are backing O'Malley) complain that funds going to RESTART could be better spent on prison security -- two guards have been murdered by inmates in Maryland prisons this year. As Nov. 7 approaches, look for O'Malley and the General Assembly Democrats to keep bringing up the prison-safety issue.
Neither side has covered itself with glory on the question of illegal aliens. O'Malley and Democrats in the legislature have supported driver's licenses and other benefits for illegal immigrants. Apart from expressing general disapproval of these schemes when asked about the subject on local talk radio, Mr. Ehrlich has sought to avoid addressing the issue.
IN THE SENATE RACE, where Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes is retiring after five terms, Steele is the underdog against 10-term Rep. Ben Cardin, a fixture in Maryland politics for 40 years. Cardin, a quiet, down-the-line liberal like Sarbanes, narrowly defeated former NAACP president and Rep. Kweisi Mfume in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary. Thus far, Cardin sounds like he is running against President Bush, emphasizing his opposition to the war in Iraq, and -- in order to block Steele from picking up a substantial portion of the black vote -- Cardin is hammering Bush over Hurricane Katrina.
Steele, who burst onto the national political scene with a powerful address at the 2004 Republican National Convention, supports the war in Iraq -- although in blue-state Maryland, he isn't emphasizing this. On the campaign trail, Steele generally tries to soft--pedal his Republican Party affiliation -- if he mentions it at all. And he has tried to distance himself from the White House by advocating the importation of prescription drugs from Canada and blasting the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
While Steele is an inspirational public speaker who is pro-life and believes strongly in tax cuts and entrepreneurship, he would probably not be a reliable conservative vote in the Senate. He says he wants to be like Sen. John McCain and Sen. Charles Mathias (a liberal Maryland Republican who served in the Senate from 1969-87). He also defends racial preferences and calls Al Sharpton a friend.
In reality, Steele is a moderate who would probably vote with conservatives some of the time, whereas Cardin will vote with Ted Kennedy virtually all of the time. By far the most fascinating thing about Michael Steele is his ability as a black Republican to bring out the ugliest tendencies of the political left. Four years ago, Democratic partisans threw Oreo cookies at him during a Baltimore debate in an effort to remind voters that Steele isn't an "authentic" black. Senate President Miller suggested that he was an "Uncle Tom." The Baltimore Sun editorialized four years ago that the only thing Steele brought to the Democratic ticket was the color of his skin. A Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee aide was fired after illicitly obtaining Steele's credit records.
If Steele manages to close the gap with Cardin in the next few weeks, look for the most retrograde elements of the left to become unhinged. Many of them cannot abide a black senator who is not on the liberal political plantation.
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