WASHINGTON – Several Maryland Republicans are still weighing challenges to Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Baltimore, but experts say the party’s hopes for capturing the seat next year are dwindling with the recent exodus of some big-name contenders.
“It was going to take a very well-financed and high-profile Republican to make the race at least interesting,” said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. in Columbia. “All the people who fit that bill have taken themselves out.”
Reps. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda and Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, eyed by the party as promising challengers, both said this month they will likely seek re-election to the House instead, with Ehrlich considering a 2002 gubernatorial bid.
Maryland Republican Party Chairman Dick Bennett, the party’s 1998 lieutenant governor nominee, has also ruled out a run for Senate.
That leaves the party with a shrinking number of possibilities, including 1998 attorney general nominee Paul Rappaport, state Delegate John Leopold and Rob Sobhani, a Rockville oil consultant who Bennett mentioned as a potential challenger.
The only announced candidate for the seat is Robin Ficker, a lawyer known for his anti-tax referendums in Montgomery County, who has been running since March 1997.
But state GOP Executive Director Paul Ellington said Rappaport, a former Howard County police chief who was Ellen Sauerbrey’s running mate in the 1994 gubernatorial election, has a strong chance of winning the state party’s support.
“Of the candidates who are out there, Rappaport probably comes into the race the strongest,” said Coker. “When he ran with Sauerbrey, he was second on the ticket and it was a very close race.”
Rappaport would not comment on a potential Senate bid, saying he would make an official announcement by the end of October.
Leopold said in an interview with CNS Thursday that his concerns about fund raising will probably take him out of the running, too.
Maryland legislators are prohibited from raising money during the 90-day General Assembly session that begins in January. That means Leopold, an Anne Arundel County Republican, would have to raise all his funds for the March primary before the end of this year.
“I would need a certain amount of money to wage the kind of campaign I want to wage,” Leopold said. “I don’t see, at this stage, my ability to raise that kind of money.”
As of June 30, Sarbanes had over $700,000 in campaign funds.
But Coker said Leopold would be a “high-energy” candidate with at least one advantage over other state Republicans – he is a moderate.
“Leopold’s politics are more suited to the Senate race,” Coker said. “All of Sarbanes’ previous opponents have been conservative. That’s why a Connie Morella or a Robert Ehrlich would have made this interesting.”
While Ellington said Ficker has been campaigning hard around the state, Coker gives the Montgomery County lawyer a very small chance. Coker said that even in his home county, Ficker’s poll numbers are “mixed at best,” citing local polls in which voters had a negative impression of Ficker.
But Ficker, who served as a state delegate in the 1980s, is undaunted. He has been going around the state since 1997, meeting voters at fairgrounds and subway stops, and he is disdainful of what he calls Sarbanes’ lack of contact with the voters.
Ficker insists that Republicans must nominate an active campaigner to defeat Sarbanes. He said he is that candidate.
State party leaders, however, do not rank Ficker as their first choice.
Ellington said Rappaport and Leopold are more likely to get the party’s support and Bennett believes Sobhani could be a contender. When asked whether he plans on running, Sobhani said Friday he is “in the midst of thinking about it.”
As for Sobhani, Coker said he has money, but little political background.
“None of the Republican candidates really have enough of either, and it’s going to take both to beat Sarbanes,” he said.