By LETICIA LINN, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - Maryland showed off its most vibrant hue of Democratic blue in the U.S. Senate race Tuesday when its voters picked unassuming Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin over charismatic Republican Lt. Gov Michael Steele, who conceded the victory Wednesday in a very emotional speech.
It was a race with national implications—a loss here could have put Democrats in a much shakier position in their effort to take control of the Senate.
Cardin got 54.7 percent of the vote and comfortably won in majority black Prince George's County and Baltimore City, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections. Steele garnered 43.7 percent, and his vote percentage in those two areas was similar to the ones he and Gov. Robert Ehrlich had in the 2002 election.
Tri-party candidate Kevin Zeese got 1.5 percent of the votes, .9 percent in Prince George's County and 2.1 percent in Baltimore City.
Even though Cardin claimed victory during election night and had a press conference the following morning as the new elected senator, Steele did not concede the race until noon Wednesday, when he addressed a crowd in an elegant room in the State House and many of his supporters cried or had tears in their eyes.
"The Ehrlich-Steele team is alive and well, folks," Steele began. He earlier congratulated Cardin on his victory. "I enjoyed sparring with him over the past few months. I wished him well and wished Myrna (Cardin) well," he said.
Steele said he hoped Cardin "will bring to the table so many who have been left on the side, and I told him that specifically, don't forget the poor, don't forget those who are trying their best but, like Thurgood Marshall said, need a hand or two to help them.
"I asked for six years as a U.S. senator, that's all I ever wanted. But the people thought otherwise, and I trust them and their judgment," he said.
Steele promised to stay involved with the community, because "you're not defined by the office you hold, you're defined by what you do."
The lieutenant governor thanked several black leaders that supported him through the campaign, particularly Democrat former Prince George's County Executive Wayne T. Curry.
"I don't know how many people appreciate how difficult that was for them, but I want them to know and I want all of Maryland to know how much I appreciate that effort," he said.
Steele had mounted an aggressive campaign to win the black vote in Prince George's County. That strategy was unsuccessful, according to the numbers. Cardin got 76 percent of the county's vote. Cardin also won 75.2 percent in Baltimore City, which also has a high black population.
Steele took 23 percent of the Prince George's vote and 22.7 percent in Baltimore City. When he ran as lieutenant governor with Ehrlich in 2002, the slate got 22.9 in Prince George's County and 24.2 in Baltimore City.
Around 29 percent of Maryland's population is black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and they usually make up about 20 percent of Maryland's general election voters.
"We start today working for the people of Maryland," Cardin said Wednesday morning in a news conference with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., even before Steele conceded the race. Cardin stressed the critical impact of the Iraq war on Tuesday's nationwide election results.
"It's clear what the American people want - a different policy in Iraq. It's clear that they get it and understand that staying the course and waiting it out won't work," he said.
"We need to come up with a different strategy and start to bring our troops home."
The United States needs to "energize" the international community to negotiate ceasefires, Cardin said, and end the civil war in Iraq through diplomacy.
Cardin voted against the war in Iraq, a factor he highlighted during the campaign.
Universal health insurance and increasing federal aid for college tuition will also be among Cardin's priorities, he said.
Mikulski, who will become the state's senior senator, said she is "excited" about working on those issues with Cardin.
"I'll tell you what I'm excited about, is that after Ben is sworn in, that we put our Maryland jerseys on when we're on the floor of the United States Senate. I can see it, within that first 100 days, the Cardin amendment to change the Medicare prescription drug benefit, to close the coverage gap," said Mikulski.
"This is what I see, is that every day, him taking one issue, I taking another, backing us up, working for Maryland, working for America.
"Well, Team Maryland's got to huddle," said Mikulski, as she took Cardin by the arm and led him into her office building.
Capital News Service reporters David Silverman and Chris Yakatis contributed to this story.