Why Steele Lost?
To understand what doomed the Steele Campaign look at the collection of supporters in the ballroom at the Bowie Comfort Inn election night. Steele supporters in the room were a mismatch of groups who wouldn't normally be in the same room. Their mantra was Steele but, it failed. Some of the destruction was self-inflicted, other parts were unforeseen circumstances.
The Lieutenant Governor connects to a lot of unusual groups in the state. There are traditional conservatives and religious conservatives, small and black business interest, an emerging Hip-Hop generation and died in the wool Ronald Regan Republicans and Democrats. The group he failed to connect with was progressives, centrists and independents.
They were critical this election. Some events over took the campaign. A deadly turn for the worst in Iraq, and a chance Democrats could gain control of the U.S. Senate meant more was riding on this election other than who would represent Maryland. The big issues of the day brought in big money from the national parties.
It allowed for slick marketing (The dog TV spots go down as the cleverest ad of the entire political season). I still believe Marylanders however want their politicians to connect to them on many levels. Leadership is not just about standing your ground but, clearing a path to create better ideas. In Maryland, a traditional Blue Democratic state, the seismic shift to the right was temporally halted. If anything the body politic wanted to move away from right leaning ideology and more to a progressive approach to governing.
The self inflictions began early on in this campaign and literally cause a shift in campaign strategy. Following a speech at a local synagogue the Lieutenant Governor tried to equate the holocaust with the middle passage where slaves died during the trip to the new world. He added further insult when questioned about stem cell research. Steele opposes embryonic stem cell research based on religious grounds. He suggested that "you of all people should know what happens when people experiment on other people." A gasp went up in the room and any chance of getting Jewish votes was lost. Literally, following that gaffe several local campaign staffers were replaced by seasoned Republican staffers who wanted to nationalize the race and use over arching GOP themes. Those themes are difficult to employ in Maryland.
The anger the Republican candidate hope to tap into in the African-American community never materialized. Early on the Steele campaign would look at the lack of African Americans at the top of the Democratic ticket as a possible wedge issue. The thinking in the Steele camp was loses by popular Black candidates (Mfume and Stuart Simms) were ripe for the picking up votes from Maryland's African-American community
especially in Prince Georges County.
The angst Black voters felt may have been turned off with last minute flyers from Steele and Erhlich Campaigns. The flyers were specifically targeted in Prince Georges County. It included a scurrilous flyer put out by Imogene Thompson, a deeply religious African-American woman from the Washington suburb. Her flyer suggested a vote for Cardin would mean African-Americans could be forced back into slavery (the campaign disavowed the flyer).
There were two other flyers that sent the wrong message to Black voters. One was entitled "Wait," the other was a sample ballot put out by "Democrats for Erhlich" that suggested Kweisi Mfume, Jack Johnson and Wayne Curry had endorsed the Governor Erhlich(Curry did endorse the governor but, Johnson and Mfume actually endorsed Democrat Gubernatorial Nominee Martin O'Malley). The desired effect was to tap into black voter angst. It had the opposite effect and may have generated anger that flipped the goodwill Steele enjoyed in Prince Georges County. Steele needed to win this jurisdiction and he didn't.
This race was also about policies surrounding the Iraq War. Here's the question I asked during the Urban League debate, "Put forth a plan that will either allow American forces to withdraw or paint a picture of how we stabilize a situation where by all accounts is going badly?" Steele wavered and I tried to pin him down. He failed to get what most people believed in this election, things are going badly Iraq.
In many ways Steele's campaign urged on by the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee was an albatross he tried to abandon (he definitely need their fundraising prowess) but, was unable to do so. It enabled his opponent to define him with President Bush. The President's poll numbers hovered near 40%. Steele claimed to be a change agent but, calling the president your "homeboy," isn't exactly setting yourself up to have policy differences. It was clever strategy to run against the GOP in a state that is two to one democratic.
Embryonic Stem Cell research is a progressive issue. Cardin utilizing Michael J. Fox to endorse his candidacy hit a cord with centrist and independents which in the past leaned Republican. Once again Steele was defined and was left trying to redefine himself by utilizing his own sister in a television ad who admitted to having MS. Steele does not endorse stem cell research but, believes in using adult stem cells.
I went looking for what was described to me as a Steele voter on Election Day. I expected her to be an African-American woman in her mid-thirties to mid-forties. It had been suggested by one Democratic observer that this was the voter who could make or break Steele. Instead I found a much older woman whose religious beliefs guided her decision to vote for Steele. Alicia Faunteroy of Prince Georges County was symbolic of this group. Faunteroy said she was guided to vote for by him because of "godly principle values." This is code for black evangelicals who place faith above race, social issues, and broader world issues. As a group they are often part of the Mega church phenomena in the black community. Prince Georges County is now the home to several of these churches. The GOP has targeted this group and was able to bring them on board because of issues like same sex marriage. While the group has its pluses, its negative is that it is very insular. If you aren't a part of the church you might as well have the plague. Trying to convince them to reach out to others is difficult. To see them at a political fundraiser with the consumption alcohol I believe irked them. In fact Ms. Faunteroy was no where to be found as the night went on.
Lastly, Maryland's GOP can boast that it found new African-Americans to join the party and cross over Democrats. It's a group that's "will not go quietly into that good night." Policies of race division that use to mark Maryland's Republican Party should be over. This new group won't always be there. Live and learn, because the state deserves to have people of color in both parties to bring forward an agenda that is in the best interest of the state.
The following is an excerpt for the upcoming book, "A Cold Day In Hell."