WASHINGTON — An influential Jewish lawmaker appears to have the upper hand in Maryland’s Democratic senatorial primary, but liberal observers worry that he could lose African American voters when he runs up against a well-known black Republican in the general election.
The Democratic race pits one of Baltimore’s best-known Jewish figures, Rep. Ben Cardin, against a leading African American candidate, Kwesi Mfume. Mfume’s candidacy has not taken flight as well as many envisioned, and party leaders have rallied around Cardin.
Polls suggest that Cardin, a longtime Democratic lawmaker, is likely to defeat Mfume, a former congressman and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and several other candidates in the September 12 primary for the state’s open Senate seat.
The winner almost certainly will face Michael Steele, who is the state’s lieutenant governor and a rising African American star in Republican politics. While Rasmussen Reports has issued a poll showing Cardin beating Steele 45%-40% in a general-election match-up and Mfume losing to Steele 47%-40%, the prospect of a Cardin-Steele race has some Democrats worried. The fear is that many blacks, a large Democratic constituency, could end up voting for the GOP candidate.
“I’m very nervous,” said State Senator Lisa Gladden, an African American lawmaker who represents part of Baltimore’s black and Jewish communities. “This is a time when we’re going to have to create some historic alliances.”
With Democrats currently needing to pick up six seats in November to retake the Senate, a Steele victory could sink their hopes of recapture. The Maryland seat in question is currently held by retiring Senator Paul Sarbanes, a Democrat.
The Democratic primary race has been mostly noncombative, state political leaders say, because Cardin and Mfume are political friends. It was not until last week, at a televised debate, that Mfume began criticizing Cardin’s record, suggesting that a long career in politics — he became a state legislator at 23 and a congressman at 44 — might have weakened his connection to constituents. “You get so close to the shores of the Potomac, you think God put you there,” Mfume said August 31. “Well, people put you there.”
Cardin is known as a quiet workhorse. He holds a powerful seat on the House Ways and Means Committee and voted against the Iraq War.
Mfume was elected to Congress in 1986 and stepped down a decade later to run the NAACP. He resigned that job in 2004. The former NAACP leader is likely to garner a strong portion of the black vote and has received the endorsements of many of the state’s African American leaders. But, in what some observers are describing as a sign of political weakness, many of those who did endorse Mfume have not been actively campaigning for him.
There are a number of other Democratic candidates in the primary looking to succeed Sarbanes. One, Josh Rales, is a prominent member of the Jewish community and a self-financed millionaire. He has blanketed the state with television ads aimed largely at anti-Iraq War voters. Another, Allan Lichtman, is a professor at American University.
A recent poll by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, released less than two weeks before the primary, showed Cardin with 43% of the vote and Mfume with 30%. Rales was third, with 6%. Mfume has strong support within the African American community, but Cardin has strong ties there, as well, said Neil Rubin, editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times. If Cardin wins the primary, his viability in November will have a lot to do with how strongly Mfume and Maryland’s black congressmen, Rep. Elijah Cummings and Rep. Albert Wynn, work on his behalf.
Gladden, who has endorsed Cardin, said that Maryland Democrats have taken the black vote in the state for granted for too long and that if Steele tailors his message to reach the constituency, he could garner significant support.
“The party is going to have to respond to some of the things that black voters are saying in Maryland,” she said, adding that she does not think the Democratic Party knows how to address this mounting discontent about the lack of black representation in statewide office. If Mfume wins, race no longer will be an issue, likely placing Mfume’s liberalism and Steele’s conservative credentials at the crux of the debate.
Steele was paired with Governor Robert Ehrlich four years ago to appeal to conservative voters. He is pro-life and has spoken out against stem-cell research. But in his campaign ads, Steele declares himself a new type of politician and appears to separate himself from the Bush administration. Last month, he acknowledged that he had been the unnamed GOP candidate who was quoted on background criticizing President Bush and Republican leaders. Steele has criticized Bush over the handling of the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina.
“Steele is not making his campaign to appeal to African Americans,” Rubin said. “He’s making his appeal to white suburban voters.”
Last February, in a conversation with a Baltimore Jewish group, Steele apologized for comparing stem-cell research to Nazi experimentation.
“Look, you of all folks know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool,” Steele told the Baltimore Jewish Council. “I know that, as well, from my community and our experience with slavery.”
But he continues to seek Jewish support. Brad Wine, a lawyer in the Washington suburb Bethesda, held a fundraiser for Steele in August and garnered $100,000, mostly from Jews.
“Clearly Congressman Cardin has served with honor in the Congress and the state legislature and has strong ties to Jewish community,” Wine said. “But I still expect a strong number of Jews who are keenly interested in national security issues to be supportive of other candidates.”
Steele is also expected to visit synagogues on several occasions this month. He went to Israel last year. Democratic officials said they are not concerned that Steele will fare well in the Jewish community if he ends up running against Cardin, a well-respected Jewish congressman who has received strong support from pro-Israel donors.
“From the Jewish’s community’s perspective, he’s problematic,” one official said of Steele. “He’s going to caucus with the Bill Frists and the Sam Brownbacks.”
Matthew E. Berger is a correspondent for Congressional Quarterly.
Matthew E. Berger is the senior adviser for strategic communications at Hillel International.