Democrats fear backlash from black voters

What happens if Mfume and Simms both lose in next week’s primary?

Thursday, Sept. 7, 2006

Maryland Democratic leaders are beginning to worry about a general election backlash from African-American voters if Kweisi Mfume and Stuart O. Simms are both defeated in the Sept. 12 primary.

Some fund-raising and polling data suggest that Mfume may not be successful in his bid for the U.S. Senate and that Simms could be defeated in the race for attorney general. If both go down, the Democratic Party would lack an African American among the top candidates on the statewide ticket — except for Del. Anthony G. Brown (D-Dist. 25) of Mitchellville, the lieutenant governor candidate.

That could present a dicey situation for Democrats in motivating the largest and most powerful element of the party’s base for the general election.

‘‘It’s a scenario that I don’t even want to talk about,” said U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Dist. 4) of Mitchellville, a prominent black leader in Prince George’s County who endorsed Mfume’s Senate bid last week. ‘‘I wouldn’t want to speculate on what such a negative scenario it would be for the party.”

Added Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach, a strong Simms supporter: ‘‘We have to make sure that does not happen.”

In addition to concerns about Simms, Miller is worried about the possibility of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer defeating Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens for comptroller, leaving the Democratic Party without a woman on the statewide ticket.

‘‘The Democratic Party is the party of inclusion and diversity,” he said. ‘‘We need to make certain that the elected office holders at the top of the ticket reflect that diversity.”

GOP watching

The racial tension bubbling in the Democratic primary races has caught the attention of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R), a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who is running for re-election. Each has been reaching out to black voters in Prince George’s and Baltimore city in the hopes of eating into the Democratic Party’s support.

African Americans can make up one-third of the Democratic primary vote and roughly 20 percent of the general election vote, said G. Keith Haller, a Bethesda pollster, noting that those percentages depend on turnout.

If there isn’t an African American on the Democratic statewide ticket, Haller said, Steele would pick up about one-quarter of the African-American vote against Cardin.

‘‘You could end up with a double-whammy,” he said. ‘‘You could see a lessening of the African-American turnout and a larger percentage of African Americans going for a Republican statewide candidate.”

Said Steele campaign spokesman Doug Heye: ‘‘It says something about the Democratic Party that the first African-American statewide elected official was Michael Steele.”

Ehrlich said he would not get into the racial dynamic of the Democratic primary, but he was quick to talk about the diversity of the GOP’s statewide ticket.

The GOP slate has Steele, an African American, and a woman — Kristen Cox, secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities — whom Ehrlich selected as his running mate.

‘‘You’re going to see a very diverse ticket on our side,” Ehrlich told The Gazette.

Meanwhile, African-American leaders in the Democratic Party are worried about the possibility that U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Dist. 3) of Pikesville will beat Mfume or that Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas F. Gansler (D) will beat Simms.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, the presumed Democratic nominee for governor, has selected Brown as his running mate, but some African-American leaders were hoping that the U.S. Senate, comptroller or attorney general nominees also would be black.

White males

A potential statewide ticket for the Democratic Party headed by four white men — three of whom are from Baltimore (O’Malley, Cardin and Schaefer) — and no minorities could be a political nightmare.

‘‘That would be a sad, sad day,” said former Prince George’s County state senator Tommie Broadwater, a Democrat and county political powerbroker backing Simms and Mfume. ‘‘The Democratic Party is going to need blacks to get to the polls if they hope to win in November. In the black community, we want a piece of the action. We want some people who we can relate to.”

Broadwater said there is still resentment from 2002, when Kathleen Kennedy Townsend selected a white former Republican to be her running mate instead of an African American.

‘‘It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that if there is no representation of African Americans on the statewide ticket that African-American turnout will go down,” said Larry Gibson, a Baltimore political operative and Simms’ campaign manager. Turnout may be down, he said, but the ‘‘vast majority” of African Americans are not sold on the Republican Party.

‘‘I think it’s a major concern ... and if you’re asking if I think there would be a backlash if there isn’t an African American on the ticket, I would say ‘yes,’” said Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Dist. 43) of Baltimore. ‘‘You could understand why some Democrats would feel disenfranchised.”

Gansler, Cardin lead in money

Gansler is burying Simms with television advertisements, and he has been running for attorney general for years compared to the short campaign of Simms, who decided to run for attorney general only after Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) dropped out of the governor’s race. Simms was Duncan’s running mate.

Miller said he hopes Duncan would make an ‘‘independent expenditure” to help Simms in the final week or so in the campaign, but that does not seem likely.

David S. Weaver, a Duncan spokesman, said Duncan handed over office space, manpower and a campaign infrastructure to Simms. Duncan has worked Metro stops and transferred money into the Simms campaign, but Weaver would not comment on any future help from the county executive.

It’s hard to imagine Duncan doing much for Simms in the final week because Duncan is having hip replacement surgery this week. Weaver said Duncan would be ‘‘out of commission” for four to six weeks after the operation.

Polls by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies and Zogby last week showed that Cardin had a wide lead over Mfume. And Cardin has a big fund-raising lead.

Mfume’s camp, meanwhile, touted a Survey USA poll published last week that showed Mfume with a narrow lead over Cardin.

The racial element — or the potential pitfalls for the Democratic Party if they lost — were not on Mfume’s or Simms’ minds. Mfume told reporters, after he was endorsed by Wynn and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Dist. 7) of Baltimore last week, that the race issue has been played up by the media.

Simms, in an interview, said he is running on his record as a Cabinet secretary under Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and as a prosecutor in Baltimore — not on race. He would not speculate on what would happen with the black vote if he were to lose.

Mfume and Simms are both ‘‘great, qualified candidates,” and the racial dynamics should not be the focus of their campaigns, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis. He pointed to endorsements that have crossed racial lines: Wynn and Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), both African Americans, have endorsed Gansler, who is white. And U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Dist. 5) of Mechanicsville and Miller, who are white, are backing Simms.

The Democratic Party would unite after the primary in hope of defeating Ehrlich and Steele, Busch said. ‘‘The idea that all of this breaks down on race doesn’t compute,” he said.