Politics 2003Week of May 12

Who Against Mikulski?

Maryland Republicans are forever saying to each other, with sadness, that "we haven’t elected a U.S. senator since 1980 [liberal GOPer Charles McMathias, who served in the Senate from 1968-86 was re-elected],"But the Free State’s Republican National Committeewoman Joyce Tehres, was far more optimistic when she recently said to me, "Things are different with a Republican governor."

Indeed, Bob Ehrlich could well have as the first line in his obituary some day, "the first Republican governor of Maryland since Spiro T. Agnew in 1966." Six months after his historic election, thwarted by the Democratic-controlled legislature on issues ranging from appointments to his budget, Ehrlich has energized a state GOP organization long considered moribund. That he is governor is enough to give Maryland Republicans confidence that they can recruit a first-class standard-bearer against three-term Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski next year.

So high is the priority the party places on beating superliberal Mikulski (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 6%) that a closed-door meeting was held at state party headquarters in Annapolis on April 30 exclusively to discuss the Senate race. Among those present at the meeting were Tehres, State Party Chairman John Kane, and party executive director Eric Sutton.

Inevitably, there was talk of trying to get a "celebrity" candidate to put up against Mikulski. While Tehres would not elaborate, she did note that "we’ve been talking about ‘stars’ as Senate candidates for years. Jack Kemp and [former Secretary of Education] Bill Bennett [both of whom are residents of and registered voters in Maryland] have had their names batted around many times, but nothing happens." Tehres, a past state party chairman, told me she doubted that a real famoso would end up running against Mikulski.

If the enthusiasm he evokes among the party faithful decided who should be the Senate nominee, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele would easily have the nomination. One of only two blacks to hold the second-highest office in the 50 states (and both are Republicans), Steele is included in virtually every major meeting with the governor on personnel and policy and his role as Ehrlich’s No. 2 has been likened to that played by Dick Cheney for George W. Bush. Interestingly, Steele is also considered somewhat more conservative than Ehrlich; while the governor styles himself pro-choice, Steele is an unabashed abortion enemy who proudly participated in the March for Life this year and has given an in-depth interview with the Catholic Standard underscoring why he is pro-life.

But Steele has made it clear that he is happy where he is, hinting he would like to become the second African-American to be governor of any state since Reconstruction when Ehrlich’s finishes the constitutional limit of two terms in 2010.

Two of Ehrlich’s Cabinet members were discussed extensively as prospective Senate candidates: Secretary of Planning Audrey Scott, onetime Bowie mayor and Reagan Administration official, and Secretary of Aging Jean Roesser, who previously served in both houses of the state legislature. There has also been considerable buzzing about a candidate from the business community who could underwrite a campaign with personal checks. Josh Rales, a Montgomery County businessman with ties to Chairman Kane, was prominently touted as a candidate in recent weeks. But party sources friendly with him tell me he has said he won’t make the race.

Even though right now, Maryland Republicans are not close to recruiting a first-rate candidate for the Senate, one thing is clear. In contrast to Mathias or Agnew (who ran as a liberal in ’66 against a unorthodox Democrat who criticized open housing and school integration), the next statewide Republican nominee in Maryland will not be a Republican-in-name-only, insists Joyce Tehres.

Noting that things have changed since the Mathias heyday in politics more than a generation ago, she told me that while Ehrlich was not an across-the-board conservative, he nonetheless painted a strong contrast between himself and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. "And that’s what we have to have for the Senate race in ’04," said Tehres, "Someone who will energize the base rather than lose it."

The "Funny Cide" of Politics

Favorite Empire Maker appeared to have everything going for him in the Kentucky Derby May 3-regally bred, owned by a rich Arab prince, with the legendary Bobby Frankel his trainer and skilled jockey Jerry Bailey in the irons. He was made the 5-to-2 favorite among the 16 horses in the field by the huge crowd at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. But they were in for a big disappointment as 12-to-1 longshot Funny Cide became the first gelding in 74 years as well as the first-ever New York bred horse to win America’s most famous horserace.

That same day, as voters in Texas’s 19th District went to the polls to choose a successor for recently-resigned Republican Rep. (1984-2003) and former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest, Carl Isett turned out to be the Empire Maker of the Lubbock-Midland district. Ever since Combest announced his resignation for health reasons and set May 31 as the date he officially leaves his House seat, State Rep. Isett had been the favorite among national and area conservatives. The lone candidate with a legislative record, home-school father, and stalwart conservative Republican, Isett had the blessings of the National Rifle Association, the Republican Coalition for Life, Gun Owners of America, Eagle Forum, Young Conservatives of Texas, and the Club for Growth. Among those endorsing him in the 17-candidate field were former Gov. (1978-82, 1986-90) Bill Clements, former 19th District Rep. (1978-84) Kent Hance, and Republican National Committeeman Tim Lambert, a resident of the district. But, in results that resounded from the Lone Star State to Washington DC, Isett not only failed to come in first but did not even make the run-off, placing a dismal third with 19% of the vote. The one-two spots were taken by former Lubbock City Councilman Randy Neugebauer (22%) and former school district trustee Mike Conaway of Midland (21%), both Republicans and considered conservatives . Under Texas election law, the two will meet in a run-off sometime in June and the winner of their contest will be sworn in immediately as Combest’s replacement. What happened to Isett? whose many pundits and pols were convinced was the runaway favorite in the district. Just as a foot-bruise days before the Kentucky Derby was widely cited as the reason for the downfall of Empire Maker, the ongoing legislative session in Austin appeared to a major cause of Isett’s surprise undoing. Most sources said that Isett proved to be a more conscientious legislator than he was a campaigner, that he spent more time in Austin trying to work out ways of grappling with the state’s $10-billion deficit without a tax increase than he did running for Congress.

Isett campaign manager Alfredo Rodriguez essentially confirmed this to me, saying that his man "was taking his work as a legislator more seriously than the campaigning, while his two opponents were campaigning full-time."

With Neugebauer’s Lubbock base comprising 45% of the district and Conaway’s Midland 53%, the June run-off will probably be less a test of ideology than geography.

Short Takes

Republican National Committeeman Alec Poitevant has been chosen as the new state party chairman in Georgia, succeeding Ralph Reed. "I’m not a therapist, I’m just a governor," was Jeb Bush’s comment to the Miami Herald regarding the sharp split between his party’s two top legislative leaders, anti-government conservative House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and Senate President Jim King, a middle-of-the-road Republican who wants to find new sources of revenue for state programs. Six months after Bush became the first Republican governor in Florida history to win re-election and the GOP swept all statewide offices, only two major bills have passed the legislature-a phone rate increase and relaxed pollution standards in the Everglades. Observers on all sides blame the inactivity on the discord between Byrd and King. . .

At least four Republicans who were eyeing a bid for the seat of retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R.-Ill.) have called moderate former Gov. (1990-98) Jim Edgar to say they will support him if he becomes a candidate. Carter Hendron, Edgar’s campaign manager since his first race as a state legislator, confirmed this to me and said Edgar (who was personally asked by President Bush to run for the open seat) will make a decision on the race shortly.