Saw some minor grumbling in Headlines this a.m. that Carson’s still going ahead with his doomed presidential candidacy instead of seizing the opportunity to replace Barbara Mikulski in the Senate. On paper he’s a perfect candidate. He has strong Maryland roots, having built his reputation at Johns Hopkins; he has crossover appeal to black voters, blunting the Democrats’ electoral edge in the state; and voters generally are more likely to take a chance on a political novice when he’s running for Senate, where he can do less damage, than for president. He could make a race of it, especially now that we know Republicans are still viable statewide in Maryland. When Michael Steele ran for Senate in Maryland in 2006, he narrowly won white voters and took a share of the black vote that was larger than usual for a Republican candidate — but he still got swamped among that group overall, 74/25, which is why he ended up losing the election by 10 points. Carson, a man who became famous outside of politics and a role model in many schoolrooms thanks to “Gifted Hands,” could improve on the GOP’s share of both demographics.
Two problems, though. First, would the army of supporters who are pouring money into the Draft Ben Carson PAC answer the bell for a Senate race? Carson’s appeal, as always for “outsider” candidates, is as a savior. People who like outside-the-box candidates for president tend to believe the country’s hopelessly broken and only a sharp break with business as usual will piece it back together. (That was the subtext of Obama’s candidacy, up to and including his unique racial identity.) A savior belongs in the most powerful job we have to offer, not as a one-in-a-hundred Senate backbencher from Maryland. I’m not sure the Ben 2016 crowd would chip in the way they’re chipping in now. Second, as he’s inched closer to running for president over the past two years, Carson’s shed the trappings of independence and begun to identify as a basically orthodox Republican. That’ll help him in a national GOP primary but not in a general election in a blue state like Maryland. It may be that he’s already so closely linked to the right wing of the Republican Party that it’ll neutralize whatever extra advantage he’d have with Maryland’s black voters. And 2016 is already expected to be a heavy lift for Republican Senate candidates due to the fact that it’s a presidential election year, with a traditionally bluer electorate. He may still be the best we have to offer for the seat, but he’d be an underdog. And if you’re going to run for an office and lose, why not run for the big one?
So here he is, announcing the launch of his new quasi-campaign website and, effectively, his candidacy for president. I’m surprised by how stiff he seems here; not only is he a seasoned Fox News veteran by now, it was a speech criticizing ObamaCare that first put him on conservatives’ radar a few years ago. On the other hand, the stiffness and soft-spokenness is part of his appeal, right? As early as it is, it amazes me to see him ahead of Ted Cruz in the polls right now given Cruz’s own high media profile and expertise in oratory. But Cruz, for all his strengths, always comes off like a Politician, a guy practiced at getting an audience to like him and do what he wants, and that might be off-putting to an audience that’s looking for an outside-the-box authentic populist that I described above. If you’re a social conservative convinced that Obama has wrecked America and that it’ll take a totally different kind of presidential candidate to set it right, Carson’s a better fit for “totally different” than Cruz is. Cruz will make up ground on him over the next year but I don’t see Carson going away before Iowa. Dissatisfaction not just with D.C. but with the entire political class, left and right, is out there. He’s the obvious beneficiary.