Maryland Senate Dress Rehearsal

Republicans Run Against Mikulski, But Dream About Sarbanes’ Seat

Posted October 14, 2003 at 6:14pm

Even with a wealthy state Senator now in the race to take on Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) in 2004, there is little sense among professionals in either party that Mikulski is particularly vulnerable at this early stage.

Still, both parties in Maryland, with an eye to 2006, are putting more stock in the Mikulski race than they might be expected to.

That’s because the Democrats are trying to regroup after losing the governorship in 2002 for the first time in 36 years. And the Republicans are looking to gain some momentum after Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s (R) upset victory last year in the reliably Democratic Free State.

“It’s kind of like batting practice,” said Donald Murphy, a former state legislator and outgoing chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Party.

Freshman state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R) announced Monday that he will run for Senate next year. Boasting that he is “a fresh face for Washington” — he even shaved off his 25-year-old mustache to prove the point — Pipkin promises to run an aggressive campaign against the three-term incumbent.

But he is sure to lag behind Mikulski in name recognition and fundraising, even if he opens his own hefty wallet, and for now he must be considered nothing more than another sacrificial lamb against someone who has displayed enduring popularity during her three decades in public office.

Nevertheless, how Pipkin runs his race — and how both political parties mobilize their forces in 2004 — will have major implications for the pivotal elections two years down the road.

In 2006, when Ehrlich will stand for re-election in what is sure to be a hard-fought, expensive race, Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) is up for an unprecedented sixth term, and the Maryland GOP has vowed to spread record amounts of money around the state in an effort to make historic gains in state and local offices.

Maryland Republicans believe the low-visibility Sarbanes could be vulnerable in 2006 — or that if he chooses to retire then at age 73, Democratic unity may fray after a rare open-seat primary.

“The polling we have certainly shows him much weaker than [Mikulski] is,” said John Kane, chairman of the state GOP.

Sarbanes, who is already the longest-serving Senator in Maryland history, has given no signals about his future plans. He has raised no money since his 2000 re-election, and had just $16,000 in the bank as of June 30. But Sarbanes customarily does not begin raising money until his elections are two years away.

In an open-seat scenario, any number of Democrats could wind up running for Senate, including some of the state’s six Democratic House Members; Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley; national NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, a former Congressman from Baltimore; and Prince George’s County States Attorney Glenn Ivey, a former top aide to Sarbanes and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Republicans could turn to Lt. Gov. Michael Steele or former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry, a Democrat, in 2006 — both of whom declined to run against Mikulski after being wooed this year. But while no one is ready to pull the trigger yet on 2006, and while Republicans had to struggle just to get Pipkin in the 2004 race, the GOP still smells opportunity.

Although he has been in office for only 10 months, Ehrlich is already preparing to raise $20 million or more for his re-election. And in a bold attempt to elect a more favorable Legislature for Ehrlich, the Maryland GOP plans to spend millions of dollars in an attempt to knock off Democratic state Senators in rural areas.

The target list includes two southern Maryland lawmakers — Roy Dyson, a former Democratic Congressman, and state Sen. Thomas Middleton, the frontrunner to become state Senate president whenever the longtime incumbent, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., retires.

In that environment, political observers believe anything is possible — including the election of the first GOP Senator from Maryland since liberal Republican Charles Mathias won his third and final term in 1980.

Before that happens, however, Maryland must get through Mikulski’s election. These have largely been perfunctory affairs in the past, with Mikulski winning 61 percent in her first Senate race and 71 percent in each of her two re-election battles (in 1992 and 1998).

A recent independent poll by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies showed Mikulski viewed favorably by 64 percent of the electorate. Only 13 percent of those surveyed said they would definitely vote for someone else in 2004.

But Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett said he expects the GOP to run an aggressive, if ultimately fruitless, campaign against Mikulski, with an eye toward 2006.

“For them to try to put a dent in Mikulski’s vote total and popularity will be seen by them as a bellwether for success that they can use for the future, when our senior Senator [Sarbanes] is on the line,” Leggett said.

By the same token, Leggett said dispirited Maryland Democrats see the Mikulski race “as a test of our resiliency,” and added that they are preparing for a nasty campaign.

Maryland is considered a fairly safe state for Democrats in the 2004 presidential election, but if Republicans regain the confidence they displayed earlier in the year, they may try to play there anyway.

Ken Mehlman, campaign manager of the Bush-Cheney re-election effort, is from Baltimore, and he recently met with state GOP leaders — including Steele, a former state party chairman — in Annapolis to plot strategy.

Before they can run any kind of campaign against Mikulski, Republicans must first decide how much they are going to help Pipkin.

A retired Wall Street bond trader, Pipkin, 46, spent more than $600,000 of his own money to defeat an entrenched state Senate committee chairman on the Eastern Shore in 2002. Although he owns a $2 million mansion on the Shore, Pipkin is a self-made millionaire who grew up in working-class Baltimore.

Pipkin is a political moderate with environmental credentials, earning his political stripes by fighting against a proposal to dump dredge materials from Baltimore-area shipping channels in the Chesapeake Bay.

If there are long-term implications in the 2004 Senate election, Mikulski’s camp said the Senator is not thinking beyond legislative business and her own re-election campaign.

“She views this as an opportunity to renew her contract with the people of Maryland,” Mikulski spokeswoman Liz Poston said of the coming election. “Her view is that the best way to keep the job is to do the job.”