Political Hay

The Sarbanes Opening

The Maryland Democrat's retirement puts a Senate seat in play for Republicans.

By 3.13.05

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At the end of this term we'll say good riddance to Paul Sarbanes, the third most liberal Senator according to National Journal's 2004 rankings (beating out Ted Kennedy by 1 percentage point) and the man whose name has become synonymous with draconian and costly business regulation in the wake of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The senior Senator from Maryland announced Friday that he plans on retiring, giving a boatload of ambitious politicians a shot at taking the seat and maybe even a chance of pushing it into the R column.

On the Democrats' side, the field is likely to be large. Five of the state's six Democratic congressman have been mentioned as possible candidates: Dutch Ruppersberger is forming an exploratory committee this week, while Elijah Cummings, Albert Wynn, Chris Van Hollen, and Ben Cardin all say they are discussing a possible run with family and supporters. Kwesi Mfume, the former NAACP president who previously held Cummings's seat in Congress, is also said to be considering a run. Of those, none would be a clear frontrunner. Ruppersberger and Cardin would make the least insufferably liberal senators; the latter could be a crossover vote on Social Security reform.

Some Democrats hoped that a divisive gubernatorial primary could be avoided if one of the two Democrats running for governor would decide to go for the Senate seat instead. But Martin O'Malley, the mayor of Baltimore, and Doug Duncan, the county executive in Montgomery County (dominated by upscale liberal Washington suburbs), have both ruled out a run for Senate. Each has raised lots of money that could not be used for a Senate race due to the differences in campaign finance regulations at the state and federal level.

The man that O'Malley and Duncan want to replace is Bob Ehrlich, Maryland's first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew (elected in 1966). Ehrlich acknowledged on Saturday that "the powers that be" in Washington have called both him and his lieutenant governor, Michael Steele, about seeking the seat that Sarbanes will vacate. A Republican with a libertarian streak on social issues, Ehrlich has signed a medical marijuana bill and has made legalizing slot machines at race tracks a signature issue; the move would bring Maryland's laws in line with neighboring Delaware's and boost revenue without a tax increase. Democrats in the legislature have repeatedly stymied various efforts to pass a slots bill and forced Ehrlich to balance the budget with increased fees and property taxes, though he's held the line on sales and income taxes and as a congressman scored a 90 out of 100 from Americans for Tax Reform in 2001, the last year before his election as governor. Ehrlich is pro-choice, though not sufficiently so for NARAL: they gave him a 45 out of 100 in 2001, the same score he got from the National Right to Life Committee in 1999-2000. As a senator, he'd be a more reliable ally of conservatives than several moderate Republicans currently in office.

Ehrlich seemed to suggest on Saturday that speculation ought to focus more on Steele. Unlike Ehrlich, he's pro-life (a Catholic, he's also anti-death penalty), which could be a liability in Maryland -- but as an articulate black Republican who many consider a rising star, he'd attract lots of attention, and money, from out of state. If Ehrlich were to decide to run for Senate, Steele would be the natural choice to run against O'Malley or Duncan for the governor's mansion; before the announcement from Sarbanes, it was generally assumed that Steele would run in 2010, especially if he and Ehrlich won reelection.

Despite a heavily Democratic electorate and a hostile press (the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun hate him), Ehrlich enjoys a 55% approval rating. The Democrat will always have the edge in Maryland, but either Ehrlich or Steele would be a serious competitor. (So might Ehrlich's wife, Kendall Ehrlich, who's also been mentioned by speculators, though it's not clear how seriously.)

Other Republicans mentioned are Harford County Executive James Harkins, State Senator E.J. Pipkin, and former congresswoman Connie Morella. None are particularly inspiring: Pipkin ran an embarrassingly weak campaign last year against Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who crushed him, and before Morella lost her seat in 2002 to Van Hollen -- with whom she had almost no substantive differences -- she refused to rule out switching parties if the House came out close.

Although breaking up the Ehrlich-Steele ticket may weaken the Republican ticket for the gubernatorial race, the chance to take a Senate seat is worth the risk. Either Ehrlich or Steele ought to take that chance.

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John Tabin is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.