Iron Candidate: Battle African-American

Political Wire reports that Paul Sarbanes is getting out of the legislating business. It's too bad; Sarbanes is a very good Senator. He's a strong liberal (he voted against Iraq, both tax cuts, and Ashcroft), but he works harder behind the scenes than Barbara Boxer does in front of the cameras. (Don't get me wrong: I love Barb. But she's not exactly a workhorse.) He was a lawyer, a Rhodes Scholar, and an economic adviser to Kennedy. I'll be sad to see him go.

In terms of replacing The Sarbanator, both parties have deepish benches. For the Dems, there's Reps. Elijah Cummings and Chris Van Hollen, and Montgomery County Exec. Doug Duncan. Republicans have Reps. Roscoe Bartlett and Wayne Gilchrest, '04 Senate candidate and "The Hobbit" character E.J. Pipkin, and maybe even Gov. Bob Ehrlich. But there are two candidates who would produce by far the most interesting race: Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, and recently-retired NAACP President (and former Democratic Congressman) Kweisi Mfume.

For those unfamiliar, Lt. Gov. Steele is currently securing Colin Powell's vacated title of The Republican Black Guy. (Powell left after realizing that "compassionate conservatism" means hugging black people, not listening to them.) Unlike Powell, he is full-throatedly embracing the GOP's "compassionate conservative" message. Also unlike Powell, he is deeply politically ambitious. He represents the vanguard of the GOP's new minority strategy, which relies essentially on the claim that Democrats take black people for granted and have stopped pursuing policies that really help them. (Republicans, apparently, at least have the courage to openly not care.) They've also aggressively pushed a conservative social message, which resonates even with the black community's strongest economic liberals. Obviously, I'm not a fan, but it's an argument that we increasingly need to take seriously, especially if we're ever going to win in the South again. Next to their their push to recruit Latinos (which I suspect is somewhat exclusive to Bush the Texan), politicians like Steele represent the GOP's strongest attempt to cut into our traditional minority coalition. And, unlike the NDN's great outreach with Latinos, we're not doing a whole lot to address it.

Mfume, of course, represents everything opposed to this. There is no organization that more thoroughly embodies the old-school coalition that blacks have with the Democratic Party than the NAACP. Mfume was the one who excoriated Joe Lieberman for failing to speak to the NAACP during the primaries. He has worked to combat the GOP's taken-for-granted arguments, and to moderate his image, going so far as to nominate Condi Rice for one of his Image Awards. But basically, Mfume represents precisely the consensus that people like Steele are out to challenge.

That's what would make this challenge so epic: It would be the first electoral showdown, as far as I can tell, between the emerging Republican message for minorities, and the traditional Democratic strategy. This could have happened in IL or GA, but neither race was competitive enough for a real dialogue to develop between the candidates. MD is also an ideal place for something like this to go down. The state has a strong black community, but they don't vote as a bloc: Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley won a primary against two black Democrats with 53% of the vote. O'Malley has also given MD Democrats an unusually strong posture on Homeland Security, making it something close to a fair fight between Democratic economic liberalism and Republican social conservatism (accompanied, of course, by their good friend Cultural Resentment). Both candidates are eloquent speakers who are generally held in high regard, at least by their respective ideological camps. It'd be a fistfight.

Steele/Mfume is a battle I'd love to see. I'm not sure we'd win it, but it's a chance I'd gladly take to see this tired "they take you for granted" meme put to bed in an official, electoral way.

- Daniel A. Munz

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