Politics & Policy

Senator Steele?

The non-stop campaign Bill Clinton might not even be able to derail.

Hagerstown, Md. – Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele is working around the clock. His campaign to fill the seat of retiring U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes gained a lot of momentum last Monday when he received the endorsements of several prominent black Democrats from Prince George’s County, Maryland. Now he’s campaigning 24 hours a day in order to take that momentum into Election Day.

Polls last week showed Steele in a statistical tie with his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin. In a state as blue as Maryland, that’s got the Democratic National Committee  worried. Of all the places they could have sent Bill Clinton, the DNC had him in PG County last night at a rally for Cardin.

Elsewhere in the county last night, Steele kicked off his two days of non-stop campaigning by visiting a call center where about 100 mostly black volunteers have been working 12 hours a day to get out the vote for Steele. Steele thanked them for their hard work and then summed up his campaign in one question:

“How many of you have gotten into an argument because of this race?”

The crowd murmured in assent, acknowledging the difficulties of explaining their support for Steele to friends and, in some cases, family members. For many African-Americans in PG County, voting Republican is uncharted terrain. This isn’t discouraging them. When Steele said, “I need you to keep having those arguments,” someone replied, “I will,” and the crowd responded with laughter and applause.

Steele could not have picked a better year to make his case to black, socially conservative Democrats.  For one thing, they are angry at the state Democratic machine. Many of them supported Ben Cardin’s black opponent, Kweisi Mfume, in the Democratic primary, and they blame state Democrats for not giving Mfume enough support to win. In this environment, Steele was able to secure the endorsements of Wayne Curry — who served as PG County’s first black county executive — and a majority of the members of the PG County Council, all of whom are black Democrats.

Also, Steele, who spent three years training for the priesthood before opting for a career in politics, promises to represent social conservatives better than any Democrat. As the Democrats have become increasingly adamant in their defense of gay marriage and abortion, they have exposed themselves to the risk of alienating groups like MOOVVEITUP, a faith-based organization that is adding significant strength to Steele’s ground game.

It helps that Steele is an energetic and adept campaigner. As a black Republican in Democratic Maryland, he has learned how to appeal to supporters of big-government programs without sounding like he necessarily favors big government. He opposes racial quotas, but supports affirmative action as a means of economic empowerment. He’s against allowing the government to bargain down the prices of prescription drugs, but argues that Medicare doesn’t adequately cover the cost of prescription drugs for seniors. On education he holds a variety of complex views, including support for charter schools and vouchers at the local level. But he also will tell you that the problem with No Child Left Behind is its underfunded mandates. 

He is a political natural one-on-one and in front of crowds. At a diner stop during last night’s all-nighter, he sat down at a table with a black pastor and the man’s associate, who described themselves as “Ben Cardin Baptists.” After listening to Steele for about an hour, they were having pictures taken with him and calling him “senator.”

Steele’s going to need a lot of these converts in order to lock up Maryland’s open Senate seat; even working around the clock, he won’t be able to make them all in person. But he might not have to. These traditionally Democratic voters are frustrated with a party that has taken their support for granted and no longer represents their values. Given Steele’s personal appeal and the momentum his campaign has built, the Democrats are going to need more than Bill Clinton to stop him.

— Stephen Spruiell is NRO’s Media Blog reporter.