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Politics 2005Week of June 27


Listen to Your Mother (Almost) Always

Monday June 20 was not a good day for White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.  Along with the usual hard-ball questions from the press corps about John Bolton, Guantanamo, and mounting criticism of the U.S. role in Iraq, McClellan had to face queries about the latest political developments in his home state of Texas.  For the first time since 1978, an incumbent governor of the Lone Star State will face a major challenge in his own primary next year.  Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who succeeded Bush as governor in ’01 and won a term of his own in ’02, is being challenged by State Comptroller Carole McClellan Strahorn, who last week declared she would run for governor, only days after Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison announced she would not run against Perry. 

One more thing:  Strahorn is Scott McClellan’s mother. 

At the Monday “gaggle” (morning press briefing at the White House), McClellan dismissed questions about his leaving as the President’s spokesman to become his mother’s campaign manager—a role he has played in several of her past winning statewide races. 

“I serve at the pleasure of the President,” said McClellan, adding that he had no intention of returning to Texas for the upcoming gubernatorial primary. 

At the afternoon briefing, McClellan was asked whether the White House, which almost always supports Republican incumbents in any office, will be getting involved in the Texas primary between Perry and Strahorn. 

“No,” replied McClellan, “the President will not be getting involved in the primary.  And let me just say that he considers both friends.” 

“As you do, I’m sure,” a reporter asked, as chuckles began to fill the Press Room. 

“I consider one mother,” said McClellan, evoking loud guffaws from the entire pack of correspondents.

Strength of Steele

To the near-universal delight (and relief) of Republican leaders in Maryland and Washington, D.C., Lt. Gov. Michael Steele last week took the first step toward becoming the Republican candidate for the seat of retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D.-Md.) in 2006.  Steele, the highest-elected African-American Republican in the country, unveiled an exploratory committee for the Senate race.

As for reactions from the state and national Republican Party leadership to the 46-year-old Steele’s decision, “delighted” and “relieved” were common..  Indeed, so much hope had been placed on Steele, one of only two Republicans holding statewide office in Maryland, that an early decision not to run would have made GOP operatives in Annapolis and Washington to consider writing off the race for Sarbanes seat.  As one official of the National Republican Senatorial Committee told me privately, “without Michael Steele, we’d really have to think hard about targeting the [Maryland] race.” 

In a state that last elected a Republican senator in 1980 and gave John Kerry 55% of its votes for President last year, early polls show lawyer-businessman Steele doing surprisingly well against either of the announced Democratic hopefuls.  According to the most recent Baltimore Sun poll, Steele trails former Rep. (1986-95) and past NAACP President Kweisi Mfume by a surprisingly slight 43% to 41% statewide.  The same survey shows the lieutenant governor trailing the other leading Democratic prospect, ten-term Rep. Benjamin Cardin, 41% to 37%.  Steele also has 77% name recognition statewide and voters who view him positively outnumber those who view him negatively by 48% to 16%, according to the Sun poll.

Inevitably, critics of Steele point out that his conservatism—notably his strong pro-life views—may be a difficult sell in a state with such a Democratic history.  In addition, they point out that when Steele was the running mate of now-Gov. Bob Ehrlich  in 2002, their ticket drew only 13% of the black vote.  The Free State has the highest concentration of black voters of any state outside the Deep South. 

But Steele appeared determined not to trim his sails in a Senate race.  As he told the Sun, “When we get into a full-blown campaign. . ,the people of Maryland, if they are concerned about that, will talk about it at that time.  I try to be a man of principle.  I don’t hide my beliefs.”

Post Steele

Easily the second-most-asked question by Maryland Republicans after “Will Michael Steele run for the Senate?”  is:  “Who will be Bob Ehrlich’s running mate without Michael?”  (Under Maryland election law, the governor and lieutenant governor are elected together as a ticket.). 

Such speculation comes at a time when surveys show the first Republican governor of the Free State since Spiro T. Agnew in 1966 facing a tough, uphill fight.  The latest Sun poll shows Ehrlich trailing the leading Democratic hopeful, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, by 45% to 39% statewide, but defeating the other Democratic prospect, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, by 44% to 38%.  (The same poll shows O’Malley favored by Democrats as their nominee over Duncan by a handsome 45% to 25%). 

Sources in Annapolis say that, if Steele becomes the GOP Senate candidate, Ehrlich will most likely turn to someone from his administration as the lieutenant governor nominee.  At this time, the most-talked-of possibility is Audrey Scott, secretary of planning.  A former Bowie mayor and Reagan Administration official in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Scott shares the pro-choice stance of Ehrlich rather than Steele’s strong pro-life position.  In 1981, she lost a special election for the U.S. House to Democrat (and present House Minority Whip) Steny Hoyer after winning the nomination over the more conservative Larry Hogan, Jr., now her colleague in Annapolis as appointments secretary to Ehrlich. 

Party Time In Nebraska

With the decision of State Party Chairman David Kramer to resign and run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson next year, Nebraska Republicans recently tapped former two-term State Sen. Mark Quandahl to take the party helm. 

While Kramer is generally considered moderate-to-conservative, Quandahl is considered more of a swashbuckling conservative in the mold of former Chairman Chuck Sigerson (who was just re-elected a member of the Omaha City Council).  Quandahl, for example, introduced bills to make the Cornhusker State’s unicameral legislature partisan (lawmakers are not now elected on party tickets) and was tough on spending. 

Another Sigerson ally, Jessica Moenning, was named as the state party’s executive director.  After getting her political start at party headquarters under Sigerson while a college student, Moenning ran conservative Jeff Fortenberry’s winning U.S. House primary race against a more moderate favorite last year.

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