The high drama has ended. Rep. Helen D. Bentley has chosen to leave Congress and run for governor. The 2nd District respresentative leaves her seat wide open for political contenders (see editorial below), but she immediately becomes the candidate-to-beat in the 1994 Republican primary.
Mrs. Bentley has held Maryland's underdog Republican Party together for the past decade; within Baltimore County she has built a growing party infrastructure. Still, she is not a shoo-in for the GOP nomination. She faces formidable opposition from a fellow Baltimore County Republican, Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, and the GOP's 1990 candidate for governor, William S. Shepard.
She's far behind Mrs. Sauerbrey in fund-raising and in organizing. But Mrs. Bentley shouldn't have trouble coming up with more money than either of her opponents; she also could raise enough funds to match the Democrats in the general election. She'll need it; the race could cost her $2 million to $3 million overall.
The five-term congresswoman has extensive name-recognition and a reputation as a tenacious fighter. In the Congress, she has emerged as an ardent supporter of pork for Maryland, her own district and the Port of Baltimore. She has also carved out a reputation as a super-protectionist, whether by smashing a Japanese boombox for the cameras or issuing shrill denunciations of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But as a candidate for governor, Mrs. Bentley won't have the luxury of grandstanding. She will have to deal with real-world situations that dominate a governor's day. Anti-NAFTA rhetoric sounds good in Washington, but a governor has to look out for state manufacturers and farmers whose businesses would suffer if NAFTA dies.
Mrs. Bentley also will have to explain to Republicans her longtime alliance with Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who came to her rescue at redistricting time. Her ties to organized labor also could make some Republicans uncomfortable.
If she makes it through the primary, Mrs. Bentley would give Republicans a well-known and popular official at the top of their ticket. Unfortunately, the GOP still lacks an equally top-rated candidate to run for the U.S. Senate. Unless that void is filled, the entire Republican ticket could suffer.
But in the race for governor, registered Republicans can look forward to a first-rate, contested primary with the three candidates reflecting divergent points of view. That can only prove healthy for the GOP, and for all Marylanders anxious to make statewide elections more than a one-party affair.