Why Cardin Won? (full chapter)
Conventional wisdom would say Ben Cardin was preordained to take over the senate seat vacated by Senator Paul Sarbanes. While Maryland Democratic political strongmen like Rep. Steny Hoyer and State Senator Mike Miller may have suggested the election was “in the bag,” Cardin knew otherwise.
After winning a significant primary challenge against Kweisi Mfume, the three-term congressman turned his attention to the Republican challenger Michael Steele. The showdown was the equivalent of heavyweight bout - and played out like one - all the way to the end.
His first task was to blunt the Steel enthusiasm sparked by TV ads which foreshadowed negative ads with spooky music and absurd claims. The cute ads were effective. But the ads quickly went into attack mode. An initial attack ad claimed Cardin accepted money from prescription drug companies. A second attack tried to link the Cardin campaign to the theft of Steele’s credit report. In fact, it was a member of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) — not Cardin’s campaign — who illegally obtained his credit report.
Cardin struck back, however, with claims of “What does Steele stand for?” The initial rebuttal ads refuted the claims of the attack ads. There was also an ad that spoofed the puppy ad and linked the Lieutenant Governor to President George Bush. I believe the initial salvo had limited effect, but the constant drumbeat did wear on voters. It was a similar strategy employed by Senator Barbara Mikulski (She stymied charges by E.J. Pipkin that she didn’t help veterans).
Cardin also knew Steele wanted to limit his exposure to tough questions. Hence, the congressman went on the offensive early to debate. Following the primary, Steele and Cardin had only agreed to debate on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Despite wanting to control when and where to debate Cardin, Steele was unfortunately not in charge of the process. In the process, Cardin made a calculation he could handle any setting as long as Steele showed up. Steele consistently wanted Kevin Zeese, the Green Party candidate, included in debates. Yet, Zeese never polled above 10%. Steele knew Zeese would attack the presumptive frontrunner, Cardin. Cardin, to his credit, always knew it wasn’t about Zeese; it was about Steele.
Lining up Democrats in the state was another key element for the congressman. Cardin, also the former Speaker of the House of Delegates, had helped numerous political careers in the state and literally called in every chip. This enabled him to get in front of friendly audiences in parts of the state that had been trending Republican.
Playing to his base in Baltimore County was a plus, but Cardin also out-worked his opponents in reaching out to voters. I received no less than 7 emails a week detailing various groups Cardin would appear before and take questions. Some were his natural constituency, others weren’t. He wasn’t afraid to wade into groups that aren’t his likely constituency. It included the Howard County Muslim Council, African-American churches in Baltimore and Prince Georges County, and college students at Morgan and Bowie State Universities.
Further, the congressman effectively used his media buys. He blanketed both the Washington and Baltimore markets with TV buys - ramping up buys during the last weekend of the campaign. His radio buys were shrewd. He didn’t shy away from making buys on right-leaning Baltimore Radio Station WBAL. He also targeted African-American voters in the Washington market by making buys on WKYS, WMMJ, WOL, WYCB, WPGC, WYCB, and WHUR. Many of those ads were delivered by Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey.
Cardin was also the beneficiary of Steele and Republican missteps. Let’s start with the National Black Republican Association radio ad suggesting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican. What a blunder! You couldn’t make this stuff up. Steele repudiated the ad, but the damage had been done. Another misstep was a guide for Maryland GOP poll watchers. The guide talked about challenging voters at the polls. This was seen as suppressing the vote, especially Black and Latino voters. The preverbal nail in the coffin was a last minute voter’s guide put out by Democrats for Ehrlich (Gov. Robert Ehrlich). Black voters are much smarter than people give them credit and they rejected the flier.
Interestingly, the item that may have put Cardin over the top was the constant arrival of top Democratic leaders and supporters including Senator Barrack Obama (Obama made two visits), former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, Senator John Kerry (prior to his gaffe in California), former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and actor Michael J. Fox. The Fox visit came on the heels of Rush Limbaugh’s criticism of Fox’s suffering from Parkinson Disease. It made national press and crystallized the differences between Cardin and Steele. It’s a playbook that will long be remembered in Maryland politics.
The following is an excerpt from “A Cold Day In Hell.”