March 21, 2005


Senate: In a face-off with Mfume, the Republican might draw more of the needed white votes. (David Lublin and Thomas F. Schaller, March 20, 2005, Paul Sarbanes)

Sen. Paul Sarbanes' pending retirement raises the tantalizing possibility that Maryland will soon become only the fourth state ever to send an African-American to the U.S. Senate.

Former congressman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume has declared himself a Democratic candidate. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is the most likely contender for the Republicans. A battle between two African-Americans for Maryland's first open Senate seat in 20 years would make for a major national political story in 2006.

Who would be favored in a Mfume-Steele matchup? [...]

If Steele ran against a formidable centrist Democrat - that would probably mean a white candidate - in the general election, he would struggle, especially if that Democrat came from the Baltimore area, the suburbs of which contain most of the state's swing voters.

Against Mfume, however, Steele has a real chance to win because he can peel away significant numbers of moderate white voters wary of voting for a liberal, black Democrat. Meanwhile, as a Republican, Steele is insulated against the wariness some white voters exhibit toward black Democrats.

But 27 percent of Marylanders are African-American, most of whom vote Democratic. Isn't that enough for Mfume? Hardly. The share of eligible, voting-age African-Americans is smaller, and the percentage of registered African-Americans who turn out is smaller still. Subtract the smattering of black Republicans, and African-American Democrats might constitute only 20 percent of the general electorate. Mfume must find another 30 percent of the electorate to win. Put another way, he needs to attract about two out of every five of the remaining, 80 percent nonblack voters. Though Townsend ran a bad campaign, Mfume would have to inspire moderates and independents who voted against her to vote for him.

Which returns us to our original question: How will Mfume bridge the Democratic Party's internal divide to build a winning majority? Though Mfume cannot be blamed for the party's intramural tensions, he will have to offer solutions. If there's a contested primary, as most expect, he'll need to make that case in order to be nominated. Or perhaps he won't: If the field is crowded with multiple white candidates, a unified block of black voters would make Mfume tough to beat.

Some state Democrats are fine with that, believing that a Steele candidacy means the Democrats must respond by nominating an African-American. As counterintuitive as it might seem, the reverse strategy might be better. Because Steele could very well convert enough centrist white voters to compensate for the additional African-American voters Mfume might mobilize, a white Democrat has a better chance to defeat Steele.

Though it's impolite to say so publicly, race remains a powerful factor in the electoral calculus of many citizens.

That Democrats can't afford a black nominee if the GOP has one is unlikely to be a good selling point in the black community.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 21, 2005 6:43 AM

If the GOP nominate a Black person, how does Queasy Mfume's race hurt him among Whites? If someone were so racist that he couldn't vote for Mfume because of race, why would he then vote for Steele? At most, he would sit the race out. If such a huge percentage of White Maryland Democrats are such abject racists, then the State would not have elected so many pro-civil rights figures to high office.

There are whole busloads of reasons to vote against Mfume but race is not one of them.

Posted by: bart at March 21, 2005 11:24 AM