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Shank's latest campaign strategy is a risky move

August 21, 2010

As a longtime unaffiliated voter, I couldn't help but be a bit flattered to learn that Del. Christopher B. Shank was reaching out to me - and other unaffiliated voters - in his race against incumbent state Sen. Donald F. Munson.

Using local political fuss-budget Tom Janus (whom I like, but whose views are very different from mine) as a letter-writing conduit, Shank's campaign appealed to unaffiliated voters to change their party registration to Republican so they can vote for him in next month's primary.

It's a curious move, to say the least. Over the years, Shank has made it clear he has no use for the political views of anyone to the left of Genghis Khan. His own banners plug him as "the conservative choice" in a Republican race against an opponent who has never been confused with George McGovern.

In Annapolis, Shank brooks no compromise with more liberal lawmakers, believing his ideological purity (and, it follows, his political career) is more important than the needs of the people of Washington County.

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Yet here he is, trying to leapfrog over the large pool of moderate Munson Republicans to attract people who are even further to the left of them both. How is that supposed to work?

It would seem a risky move since unaffiliated voters might indeed change their registration to Republican - and then vote for Munson, not Shank.

Perhaps Shank is buying into the myth that tea partiers are not affiliated with the GOP, but are independent-minded followers of no organized political party. But Shank has too keen a political mind to believe that. For the most part, unaffiliated voters make up the political center, and if they are extreme, they are as likely to be extremely left as extremely right.

So maybe this is a desperate gamble from a campaign that knows things are not going well. Put all of the chips on one number and spin the wheel.

But again, it's hard to see the benefits in light of the risks, especially when using a polarizing figure such as Janus as an instrument of outreach - a move that's roughly akin to sending a snake handler to do missionary work among the Unitarians.

Shank still can win this race, but like a space vehicle returning to Earth, his allowable angle for re-entry is distressingly narrow.

Everyone who has ever run a campaign against Munson comments on the same thing: The senator's "negatives" are impossibly low. No one has a bad impression of him, even if they don't care for his politics.

So Shank needs to go negative, but not too negative, because if he comes across as being mean toward Munson, he's toast.

Last month, Shank sat silently by at a political rally as an anti-immigration activist went off foaming at the mouth, calling Munson "a nut." Shank might have stepped up to disavow the ugly speech, but he didn't, leaving the impression - real or not - that the activist was something of a political hired goon.

That left it up to Munson's daughter to stand up and, quite ably, defend her father. And while this might have been a red-meat meeting and Shank might have had the vote of most everyone in the room, it looked sour to anyone reading the story the next day.

Bringing in outsiders - geographically or ideologically - to take shots at Munson isn't a winning strategy. Munson's people have countered with a smart response: "Look at the type of individuals who rally around Shank. Doesn't that really say all that needs to be said?"

Regardless of who wins, this is a fascinating race because the results will tell us a lot about the state of Washington County conservatism. Shank might indeed, as his signs suggest, be the more conservative choice. The question is whether that's enough, whether this is all that matters.

Munson might have put "the pragmatic choice" on his signs because he will - he makes no bones about it - make a deal if he thinks it will win something for the people back home. Results matter to him more than where he's viewed on the political spectrum.

In the past, Washington County voters have proved to be conservative, but not blindly so. Another office holder by the name of Munson, this one John, was voted out of office after one term on the Washington County Commissioners. No one was more conservative than he, but - well, you know.

So Shank might realize he needs more than a label to win. Even in a conservative county such as this, many people still like their red meat served with a little gravy.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com">timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at http://www.herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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