- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2006

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The slew of stories in recent weeks on the key races for control of the Senate consistently have omitted the one candidacy that might represent the Republican Party’s best chance of winning a seat in Congress’ upper chamber tonight: Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in Maryland.

That Mr. Steele has been overlooked by political pros is understandable: He’s running his own true campaign for the first time, and he’s a Republican running in a very blue state in an election likely to be very good for Democrats. But as his campaign has been quick to remind voters at every turn, Mr. Steele is not a typical Republican. And if he wins, it will be for a reason that will be unique for a statewide Republican candidate, namely winning a significant chunk of the black vote.

Democrats have known for some time that Mr. Steele, who is black, was a threat to double (or more) the 5 percent to 10 percent of the black vote most Republicans win. An internal Democratic Party memo, in fact, said so explicitly. Nonetheless, the Maryland Democratic establishment lined up uniformly behind Rep. Ben Cardin in his primary against former head of the NAACP Kweisi Mfume, who is black.

That decision might come back to haunt Democrats, and not just in Maryland if Mr. Steele is the margin of difference for control of the Senate.

Polls have been all over the map in the past couple weeks, both on overall numbers and on black voters specifically. Even so, it seems a safe bet that Mr. Steele will win at least 20 percent of the black vote — most polls show him at least in that range — but it is the movement on the ground that most strongly suggests a Steele surge in the black vote.

Mr. Steele won the enthusiastic backing of hip-hop legend Russell Simmons — an unabashed Democrat — and he’s also received support from a number of leading black pastors, influential figures in their communities. These endorsements are particularly significant in light of the anger felt by many black Democrats in Maryland after what they considered a snubbing of Mr. Mfume in the primary. And Mr. Cardin certainly didn’t help his cause when he pulled out of an NAACP-sponsored debate at the last minute.

But the Republican has received no support more important than the backing of all five black members of the Prince George’s County Council — all of whom are elected Democrats. Mr. Steele hails from Largo, which is part of the vote-rich county, giving him an advantage already over his Baltimore-based opponent in terms of visibility in the Washington suburbs. Prince George’s County, the wealthiest majority-minority county in the nation, is normally a reliable Democratic stronghold, but if Mr. Steele pulls over 35 percent there, his chance of victory skyrockets.

Of all the Senate races nationwide, none has had more volatile poll results than the Maryland contest. Two factors have created the most havoc in attempting to predict the status of the race, and both relate to the black vote: black turnout, and black support for Mr. Steele.

Blacks make up just over one-quarter of the Maryland electorate, and turnout could range anywhere from under 20 percent of overall votes cast to almost 30 percent. Some polls have assumed 25 percent, others have predicted as low as 18 percent. Enthusiasm in the black community for Mr. Cardin, to put it politely, is not exactly palpable, suggesting turnout lower than usual.

Polling any subset is inherently tricky, so trying to peg actual black support for Mr. Steele has proven difficult. WUSA-TV’s Survey USA poll, though, has the Republican at 33 percent support among blacks, and even using a model of 26 percent black turnout, Mr. Steele is tied overall with Mr. Cardin at 47 percent.

If Mr. Steele ekes out the upset tonight, it will mean one of two things: 1) it’s not a Democratic tidal wave, so several other Republicans will win tight races; or 2) he has put together such a unique campaign, particularly his black outreach, that he might be the only embattled Republican Senate candidate still standing at the end of the night. That, by the way, would seal Republican control of the Senate.

Should Lt. Gov. Steele become Sen. Steele, look for Maryland’s first-ever statewide black elected official to become a major Republican star. Cynics will claim this is because he’s a rare black face in the Republican Party. But as Maryland voters have learned, Mr. Steele is charming, genuine and unusually eloquent for a politician.

Too bad it would take a shocking victory tonight for the rest of the nation to realize what many Marylanders already have.

Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times

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