WASHINGTON – Though those vying for the empty U.S. Senate seat in Maryland say they’ve moved on from the controversial comments by Republican candidate Lt. Gov. Michael Steele — in which he compared stem cell research to Nazi Holocaust experiments — the episode could echo throughout the campaign.
To win statewide, Steele, who has never won political office on his own, must attract a significant portion of Democrats, but his comments have the potential to turn off some traditionally Democratic voters, and even motivate them to turn out in numbers to defeat him, experts say.
At issue is Steele’s comment on his opposition to embryonic stem-cell research during a Feb. 9 Baltimore Jewish Council luncheon: “You of all folks know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool.”
The remark ignited fierce criticism, including this from Art Abramson, executive director of the council: “If the lieutenant governor was drawing a comparison between stem cell research and human medical experimentation during the Holocaust, he must understand the pain this kind of analogy would inflict on survivors and their families,” Abramson told The Sun of Baltimore. “We absolutely reject any comparisons between ethical and lifesaving medical research, and the horrors committed by the Nazis in their evil drive to create a master race.”
Steele has since apologized for his remarks and voiced support for stem cell research.
And while some experts say one comment is unlikely to deter potential voters this early, others say the most important issues in the U.S. Senate race this year will be of paramount concern to Jews, particularly, for example, the war in Iraq and the change in leadership of Palestine.
“Jews have learned the cost of not voting over the years,” Abramson told Capital News Service. “Anything that directly talks about the Jewish community is a concern.”
The Jewish voting demographic in Maryland might be small — less than 10 percent of Maryland voters — but is gaining in influence, pollsters say. In addition, when compared to a national Jewish population that averages about 2 percent, the numbers gain “heavy weight,” experts said.
About 75 percent of Maryland Jewish voters vote Democratic, political analysts said, with Montgomery and Baltimore counties containing the greatest populations in the state of those who identify themselves as Jews. In Montgomery County, a “majority” will vote in the Democratic primary, pollster Keith Haller said.
“It’s concentrated,” Haller said. “There’s no question the Jewish voter has played a significant role in a number of elections in Maryland.”
If Rep. Ben Cardin, who is Jewish, prevails in the Democratic primary to face Steele in November, Steele’s comments might resurface with Jewish voters. A recent head-to-head poll by Rasmussen Reports has Cardin receiving 49 percent overall to Steele’s 35 percent.
“The Jewish vote, like a lot of ethnic groups in Maryland, combines to make a strong Democratic voice,” Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman said. “I don’t think they are different than any other group. They care about all issues like all Democratic environments.”
“This is the great Democratic dilemma,” said Maryland political analyst Blair Lee. “Steele can only win if Democrats defect to him, if angry disillusioned Democrats defect to him. He’s an easy vote for an angry Democrat.”
Lee listed the top reasons Jewish voters are important: They contribute a lot of money to campaigns; are politically active in communities; regularly turn out to vote; and are concentrated in the Democratic Party.
“They circle the calendar and all vote on Election Day,” Lee said. “There’s a lot of civic pride.”
The Jewish community may be more motivated than usual to turn out to voting booths this year — the takeover of the Palestinian government by Hamas, which has been internationally named as a terrorist organization.
Cardin not only has a record on Israel, but is Jewish himself — both of which separate him from his opponents, Abramson said.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has a history of supporting Israel, Abramson said, but that stance does not cover Steele, who has no proven track record on the issue.
Some analysts said Steele could learn from Ehrlich’s appeal to Jewish voters in 2002 — the first time a Republican won the governor’s seat in 40 years — to which they credit his victory.
“Certainly Michael Steele needs to duplicate what Ehrlich has done with his popularity, which is reach into the Baltimore suburbs, which has sort of become the new Republican base,” Haller said.
Lee, however, attributed Ehrlich’s victory to winning the “red counties” — Carroll, Howard, Frederick, Garrett, and Washington. Typically, Democratic politicians, such as former Gov. Parris Glendening, have won by carrying Prince George’s, Baltimore and Montgomery counties — which Ehrlich failed to do.
What Steele loses in the Jewish vote, the analysts say, he has potential to gain with the black vote, which also tends to vote strongly Democratic.
Experts consider former congressman and ex-NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume to be Cardin’s main competition in the Democratic race, but the Rasmussen poll shows if Mfume emerged victorious, he and Steele would be evenly matched: Steele at 42 percent and Mfume at 41 percent.
The other Democratic primary candidates — history professor Allan Lichtman, forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, businessman Josh Rales, and former Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen — will generally attract voters in Montgomery and Baltimore counties, analysts said, but only Lichtman, who is Jewish, could make a serious play for Jewish Democrats.