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March 20, 2005
Steele Vs. Mfume In 2006?

With the retirement of Paul Sarbanes from the Senate next year, the Democrats now have to defend a Senate seat that they hoped would be a slam dunk for re-election. Only Kweisi Mfume, a former Congressman and the departing head of the NAACP, has announced his bid for Sarbanes' seat in the Democratic primary. If he wins the nomination, he would be the first African-American candidate for Senate in Maryland's history, an anomalous difference among Southern states thanks to Maryland's refusal to join the Confederacy during the Civil War and the avoidance of Reconstruction.

However, Mfume may wind up sharing that long-overdue distinction if Lt. Governor Michael Steele decides to throw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination. The Washington Times reports that Steele has not ruled out running for Sarbanes' seat:

Mr. Steele said yesterday that he has not decided whether he will run.

"I'll be saying a little bit more over the next few weeks," he said on WBAL Radio. "I'm seriously thinking about it."

Mr. Steele said he will base the decision on a number of factors, including the wishes of his wife, how a Senate campaign would affect Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration and Mr. Ehrlich's re-election bid.

"We'll go through that drill-down, and we'll see what happens," Mr. Steele said.

Mr. Mfume, who last week announced his bid to succeed Mr. Sarbanes, a Democrat and the longest-serving senator in state history, thinks Mr. Steele will not run. His theory is that Mr. Steele is looking beyond the Senate seat and will keep his job with Mr. Ehrlich so they can run for re-election in 2006, which would set up Mr. Steele to become governor in 2010.

I first noticed Michael Steele at the Republican National Convention, when he spoke in a prime-time gig on the second day. He spoke impressively, which didn't surprise me as he has extensive media experience as well as in electoral politics. His personal story will resonate with Maryland voters, and his work in the NAACP may well erode some support from Mfume.

Mfume sounded upbeat about facing Steele, comparing the battle to Hank Aaron squaring off against a steroid-free Barry Bonds, although Mfume humorously refused to say which home-run hitter best represented which candidate. But Mfume thinks that Steele won't actually run for the Senate, preferring to run again as lieutenant governor in preparation for a gubernatorial run in 2010.

I don't think Mfume will get off that easily. Steele obviously has too much talent to play in the minor leagues any longer, to stretch Mfume's own analogy to its breaking point. The Republicans need a star to hit clean-up in Maryland to gain more traction in the Senate for the final session of Congress in Bush's term. Steele would be a perfect candidate for the Republicans in a moderate Southern state -- passionate, erudite, charming, and reliably conservative while not being radically so. The GOP should work overtime to convince Steele to step up to the plate.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 20, 2005 9:22 AM

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