Could 1994 be the year Paul Sarbanes' luck runs out?
After winning election three times to both the House and the Senate, will Mr. Sarbanes' liberal voting record turn into a liability with a Maryland electorate exhibiting tendencies toward moderate conservatism, Republicans and non-incumbents?
Optimists within the Republican hierarchy think this could be so. They point to a recent Mason-Dixon Poll in which Mr. Sarbanes fell far short of the magic 50 percent threshold in matchups against a bevy of GOP candidates. Only 41 percent of those polled said they would vote to re-elect Mr. Sarbanes; his job performance was rated as fair or poor by 51 percent of the people surveyed.
Analyzing the figures, Mason-Dixon rated Mr. Sarbanes as "extremely vulnerable" next year.
But if Mr. Sarbanes is that fragile, why are leading Republicans reluctant to take him on? Perhaps they recall what the Baltimore Democrat did to previous challengers.
He is, after all, the giant-killer of Maryland politics.
Mr. Sarbanes first won a seat in the House of Representatives by knocking off a 26-year veteran, George H. Fallon, chairman of the Public Works Committee. Two years later, another House potentate, Edward A. Garmatz, who headed the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, retired rather than take on Mr. Sarbanes.
Four years after that, he ran for the Senate, disposing of former Sen. Joe Tydings in the primary and incumbent J. Glenn Beall Jr. in the general with 57 percent of the vote.
When Republican conservatives took dead aim at him in 1982, Mr. Sarbanes clobbered Larry Hogan Sr. with 64 percent; in 1988, his winning margin was 62 percent against conservative Alan Keyes.
That's a record Earl Weaver would envy. Clearly, Mr. Sarbanes is doing something right.
It's certainly not his performance in the Senate, where he is a role-player on the fringes of major issues. His thoughtful, methodical style gets him little publicity. He is such a dependable liberal-Democratic vote that for the past two years he's won a 100 percent rating from the Americans for Democratic Action and a 0 rating from the American Conservative Union.
It is this knee-jerk liberalism that enrages Republicans. The Mason-Dixon Poll seems to indicate that voters aren't enthralled with a senator who refuses to chart his own independent course. Voters who supported Paul Tsongas or Ross Perot last year may turn against Mr. Sarbanes in '94.
Will they? That's what Rep. Helen D. Bentley is pondering. She runs only 10 points behind Mr. Sarbanes in the Mason-Dixon Poll; when undecided voters (who usually go against an incumbent) are factored in, she's in a virtual tie.
Yet until recently, Mrs. Bentley has ruled out a Sarbanes challenge. She had focused on governor. But now that Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Neall is firmly committed to that race, Mrs. Bentley is taking a closer look at the Senate contest. And for good reason.
She has a potful of campaign funds she can throw into such a race, she has enormous financial resources within maritime and national Republican circles and she poses a serious threat to Mr. Sarbanes in his own backyard.
Maritime unions will go with Mrs. Bentley, not Mr. Sarbanes; so will many blue-collar ethnic voters of eastern Baltimore City and Baltimore County. She is everything Mr. Sarbanes is not: she's a shoot-from-the-hip defender of local interests; a publicity-savvy politician who naturally latches on to controversies; a loud and aggressive battler and fighter in the Congress. A Sarbanes-Bentley race would be a doozy.
Still, the Sarbanes magic shouldn't be ruled out. The senator seems to disappear into the Washington fog after he wins re-election, only to resurface locally when the next election nears. But then he turns into an energized, relentless campaigner. He leaves nothing to chance, and that includes dawn-till-midnight campaigning in every nook of the state. He'll also amass a huge fund and horde much of it till the final advertising blitz of the last weeks.
What makes a Bentley-Sarbanes race so appealing is that the two are identical in a number of respects. Both are meticulous campaign organizers. Both can raise vast sums of money. Both have statewide name recognition. Both are loved by labor unions and blue-collar workers. Both are tireless campaigners.
Still, the odds may be marginally in Mrs. Bentley's favor if 1994 turns out to be a Republican year or another year of voter anger toward incumbents. She would, after all, be running on a ticket that is likely to include Mr. Neall for governor and former U.S. Attorney Richard D. Bennett for attorney general. That lineup could well capture the voters' imagination.
All this, of course, depends on Mrs. Bentley's willingness to give up her safe seat in the House of Representatives. That will be a difficult decision. Mr. Sarbanes' future may hang in the balance.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.