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Maryland Senate Race

The race to succeed long time Maryland Democratic Senator Paul Sarbanes is getting very intriguing. Baltimore Rep. Ben Cardin has long been thought to be the frontrunner to win both the Democratic primary and the general election in November. However, with the primary only nine weeks away, a recent Washington Post poll gives former Rep. Kweisi Mfume a 7-point lead among likely Democratic primary voters, 33 - 26. A win by Mr. Mfume, the former president of the NAACP, would set up a race against Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and would guarantee another African-American in the U.S. Senate.

While Mr. Cardin is still probably the favorite to win the early September primary, he is walking a tightrope in how aggressively he attacks Mr. Mfume, searching for the right balance that wraps up the primary without antagonizing critical African-American support he will need to win in November. One concern for Mr. Cardin, highlighted by the recent poll, is that the more Mr. Mfume appears to have a real shot at winning the primary, the higher the likelihood for major disappointment in the black community, particularly in Baltimore City.

Already the primary has taken on strong racial overtones, with Mr. Cardin drawing over 80% of his support in the Post poll from white voters, while Mr. Mfume is likely to garner nearly 90% of the sizable black vote. African-Americans comprise 28% of Maryland's electorate and represent an even greater force in Democratic primaries. Mr. Mfume's African-American support in Baltimore City and Prince Georges County is likely to get him near 40% of the vote, but with minor candidates expected to draw 10% or less, he is going to need closer to 45% to upend Mr. Cardin. Mr. Mfume's challenge is to sell himself in the heavily-Democratic Washington Suburbs as Maryland's Barack Obama, as he is probably going to need at least 25% of the non-black vote to win.

From the Republican viewpoint, even though a primary victory by Mr. Cardin would likely lead to Mr. Steele garnering more of the black vote in the general election, the GOP would still much prefer to face Mr. Mfume on the Democratic side. In the Washington Post poll, Mr. Steele runs 12 points better among likely voters against Mr. Mfume than he does against Mr. Cardin.

The outcome of the September 12 primary could have national implications as well. Democrats need a six-seat switch to take control of the Senate this November, which realistically means holding every one of their vulnerable seats. The Maryland Senate seat is not one the Democrats want to be fretting about on election night, but if Mr. Mfume can pull off the primary upset, this race will vault into one of the most watched and competitive Senate races in the nation this year.