Countdown to the November Elections

NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams discusses the top political news of the week with Ron Walters, political science at the University of Maryland, and the Rev. Joseph Watkins, a member of the government relations group, Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

For a recap of this week's news from inside the Beltway we go now to NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams in our Political Corner. Juan?

JUAN WILLIAMS: Thanks, Tony. We're joined now by Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. The professor's latest book is called Freedom is Not Enough.

Also with us, Reverend Joseph Watkins. Reverend Watkins is a member of the government relations firm at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney. He was a member of the first President Bush's White House staff.

Gentlemen, welcome to Political Corner.

Professor RON WALTERS (Professor of Political Science, University of Maryland): Thanks, Juan.

Reverend JOSEPH WATKINS (Government Relations Group, Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney): Good to be with you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: We had quite a day of politics in America on Tuesday. The big national story from the Republican perspective, Reverend Watkins, had to do with the victory of Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island.

I think the Republican establishment, and here I'm speaking about the Bush White House, the Republican National Committee under Ken Mehlman, feel they dodged a bullet because - this is so interesting - a moderate Republican, Lincoln Chafee, wins the nomination even though he's a guy who didn't vote for President Bush in the last election and voted against him in terms of authority to go to war and on his last Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito.

Rev. WATKINS: Well, there are many people who were trying to say that this election, and certainly the election even in Rhode Island, would be some kind of a referendum on the Bush administration and their policies. And so even though Lincoln Chafee has not been a strong Bush ally in the Senate, he is a Republican. And the thought was he would be tarnished with that same brush and that he would be in jeopardy of losing his seat.

And some of the polls early on showed that he might indeed be in danger, but he won. Which really brings to bear what Ken Mehlman, the RNC chairman, has been saying over and over again, which is that this is not going to be about the larger issue, it's not going to be some kind of the referendum on the Bush presidency. More importantly it's going to be about local issues and local candidates running in their states.

WILLIAMS: But, Ron Walters, I thought that his opponent, Steve Laffey, was the real - was the guy who was saying that Chafee's too liberal and that Laffey said he would be more in line of the conservatism of George W. Bush.

Prof. WALTERS: That's right. And what it means is that this race is not out of the water yet. And Democrats are looking at…

WILLIAMS: Well, the race is over. You mean the race for the general election…

Prof. WALTERS: But I'm talking about the general election. That's right. And we're talking about this as though actually Lincoln Chafee has won the election. But let's think about this, because you're absolutely right. He's got to face a Democrat who has a pretty good record in terms of his campaigning against the war. And that's when this issue will really come to the fore.

WILLIAMS: Well, let's more on then to what I think was the most interesting race in terms of black American politics. And that would take us to Maryland, where you had Kweisi Mfume, the former head of the NAACP, running against Ben Cardin, a former member of Congress. And of course Mfume himself is a former member of Congress.

Now the numbers aren't quite set as we speak, but it does appear that Cardin had a clear victory. And the question is how did Mfume and Cardin do among black voters in Maryland and how does it set them up to run against a black Republican in November, Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele? Ron Walters.

Prof. WALTERS: Well, I think that he did pretty good among black voters.

WILLIAMS: You're talking about Mfume.

Prof. WALTERS: Yeah, Mfume in the state of Maryland. And the reason for that is is that if you look at the registration in Prince George's County, which is predominantly black county in the state of Maryland, it went - 2002 it increased 55,000 in 2006. So in that four-year period you had the largest increase in the state of Maryland. So I think many of those were gearing up to vote for Mfume.

The problem Mfume had of course was money and the establishment - Democratic establishment in the state of Maryland. Ben Cardin was able to tap that establishment for money. And given that, Mfume was not able to compete. He didn't have the ground game; he didn't have the visibility in the media. He didn't have a sense of presence all over the state that he really needed to be competitive.

WILLIAMS: What do you think, Rev. Watkins?

Rev. WATKINS: Well, the question is now where do those voters who voted for Mfume go in the general election, which is just a couple of months away. Do they go with Cardin, the Democrat, or do they defect to Michael Steele? Now remember Steele did so well back in 2002. Many people believe that it's his nomination to be lieutenant governor, and the fact that Ehrlich chose him, the governor, chose him to be his running mate is what helped him to win the governor's race back in 2002.

The question is will the same kind of thing happen now in this U.S. Senate race in Maryland in 2006? Will African-American voters who voted for Mfume defect and vote for Michael Steele in the November election? And I say that Steele has a very, very good chance, a very strong chance of getting a lot of those voters who voted for Mfume to vote for him.

WILLIAMS: All right. Ron Walters is professor of political science at the University of Maryland. And Joe Watkins is a member of the government relations firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us this week on Political Corner.

Prof. WALTERS: Thanks, Juan.

Rev. WATKINS: Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Back to you, Tony.

COX: Thanks, Juan. Join us every Thursday for Juan Williams and his Washington insiders right here on Political Corner.

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