Maryland Senate Race May Hinge On Ethnicity

"I still consider myself running from behind," says Kweisi Mfume (D), who trails others in fundraising. (Lucian Perkins - Twp)
By Matthew Mosk and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 2, 2006

Former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume leads U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in what is shaping up to be a racially polarized Democratic Senate primary in Maryland, even as roughly a third of the electorate has not settled on a candidate, according to a new Washington Post poll.

For the first time in Maryland history, both major parties have the potential to nominate an African American, and the poll suggests that the hopes of all of the major candidates will depend on their ability to cross racial boundaries for support.

As they stand, the racial divisions are stark: In the primary, Mfume, who is black, gets 72 percent of his support from black voters, the poll shows. Cardin, who is white, gets 82 percent of his backing from white voters.

Then there is Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has brought national attention to the Senate campaign because he is one of a handful of African American Republicans whom the national party is counting on to establish credibility among black voters.

Both Democrats hold leads over Steele in potential general election matchups, although Mfume's is narrow, the poll shows. And again, skin color appears to exert a significant tug.

For instance, if Cardin wins the Democratic primary, the poll shows that nearly a quarter of all black voters would back Steele. If Mfume wins the primary, black voters would stay with the Democratic Party, but Steele would see a nine-point jump in his support from white voters.

Lee Parker, a 35-year-old from Prince George's County who works for a charitable foundation, was one of several black Democrats who said they would consider voting for Steele if Mfume loses. "I like his stance on economic empowerment and particularly on the role he sees for social services in the community," Parker said. "Those are two things that resonated with me."

In the past year, Mfume and Cardin have emerged from the half-dozen Democratic candidates vying for the seat being vacated by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D), with Cardin remaining a quiet but consistent front-runner in fundraising and early polls.

The Post's survey, conducted June 19 to 25, shows Mfume ahead by six points among registered voters, 31 to 25 percent, with 32 percent saying they don't know whom they're backing. The remaining respondents were split among other candidates.

"I still consider myself running from behind," Mfume said yesterday. "As I've run this campaign for almost a year and a half, we've always been considered the underdog. We didn't have the same amount of money or the blessing of the party. We're still trying to reach the ears of the voters."

Cardin said his own polls, including one taken at the same time as the Post's poll, show him leading Mfume and Steele by double digits. "We expected during the course of the campaign to see polls that would have us up and down," he said yesterday.

The Post's telephone poll was conducted among 902 registered voters, including 494 registered Democrats, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. The margin is four points for questions about the Democratic primary.

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