Three words are heard over and over again on the campaign trail with Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele: empowerment, opportunity, ownership.
Steele, the Republican candidate for Senate from Maryland, is effectively delivering the conservative message of smaller government and self-reliance to audiences that have heard it too infrequently in recent decades.
“I think government is a limited-purpose entity,” Steele says, echoing Ronald Reagan. “I believe very much in the power of the individual to make decisions in his or her own best interests.”
This is not a theme many Republican candidates pitch directly to black voters, but Steele is changing that in Maryland. As a result, Steele, who is black himself, has been attracting support in traditionally Democratic quarters.
Hip-hop mogul and long-time Democrat Russell Simmons has endorsed Steele and campaigned hard for him. Democrats for Steele, a recently organized group of leading Baltimore Democrats, generated large turnouts at its first events last week. In fact, they were so successful that Maryland’s Democratic Party chairman accuses Steele of “political identity theft.”
Steele also won the endorsement of Michael Mfume, son of former Congressional Black Caucus Chairman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who recently lost the Democratic primary for Senate to Steele’s opponent, Rep. Ben Cardin (D.-Md.).
Steele has not run to the left to garner support. He is a solid conservative who backs the U.S. effort in Iraq, is ardently pro-life and anti-tax. He supports repeal of the federal gas tax—and takes a hard-line stand against illegal immigration. He also backs the Federal Marriage Amendment, even though he wishes the matter could be left to the states. Moreover, serving as a county chairman and then state chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, Steele has been involved at the top levels of state GOP politics for some time now.
Raised in a Democratic household, Steele joined the Republican Party as a young man after closely observing Ronald Reagan’s presidential run in 1976. He linked his mother’s refusal to accept public assistance to Reagan’s limited government message.
In his stump speeches, he tends to focus less on Republican red-meat issues and instead focuses his attention on issues such as health care, Social Security and education, on which Democrats ordinarily believe they have the upper hand. He puts a conservative stamp on these concerns, advocating health savings accounts, private Social Security accounts for younger workers, and school vouchers.
His ability to attract traditionally Democratic voters has been built on personal interaction, as opposed to political pandering.
“We Republicans haven’t traditionally engaged urban voters,” says Steele, a member of the Prince George’s County chapter of the NAACP. “We walked away from the urban agenda in the 1960s and the 1970s … it’s a problem of dedication.”
This has all changed in the Steele campaign, and straightforward communication is what is winning him across-the-board support. For example, Steele connects Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of black equality with his own Reagan-like agenda of ownership.
“I take the example of Dr. King,” says Steele. “I want to transform his goal of sitting at the lunch counter into one of being able to own the diner. That’s the new economic agenda of the 21st Century … everyone wants to be able to say ‘I own.’”
Polling indicates Steele’s efforts are paying off. His internal polling has his support among the black community ranging from 25% to 35%. Down by double-digits as recently as mid-summer, according to the Rasmussen and Washington Post polls (which had him trailing by 10 points and 12 points, respectively), Steele has been closing the gap and now trails Cardin by an average of 5.7 points, according to a RealClearPolitics.com round-up of surveys. In a SurveyUSA poll conducted September 17-19, Steele led Cardin 48% to 47%.
Despite the inroads he has made in the black vote, Steele has been warned by his friend Curt Anderson, a political consultant, against becoming just an “outreach pawn” of the Republican Party. “By virtue of being a Republican candidate for office, there’s an automatic outreach from me to the people. By virtue of being an African-American Republican, that augments the level of that extension,” says Steele. “People pay attention to it, which is good, but has its drawbacks as well. The philosophy of empowering people is, of course, a cornerstone of the Republican Party, but I don’t need to run around and put labels on everything that I say and do.”
Although he is no maverick in the mold of, say, Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), Steele, like many conservatives, has his differences with the Republican establishment in Washington, D.C., and he does have an independent streak. “I had a meeting with [Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist,” recalls Steele. “He said at one point, ‘We can’t wait till you get here to the Senate.’ and I said, ‘senator, be careful what you wish for.’”
He has criticized President Bush on education—lobbing grenades at the No Child Left Behind Act—and ruffled GOP feathers by calling for greater conservation efforts.
Considering that Maryland is historically a Democratic state, and that the national Democratic Party is prepared to spend heavily to keep it that way by electing Cardin, Steele faces an uphill struggle to Election Day.
Nevertheless, he believes his message of individual empowerment and opportunity will trump narrow appeals to traditional party affiliations and carry him to victory. “Sharing the message of ownership that all of us will represent, that all of us will create, will empower the least among us who want to start a business, buy a home,” says Steele. “It’s not rocket science. It’s common sense.”