Maryland's candidates for Senate are beginning to bring the state's marquee political contest into Baltimore, working to lock down support and money in the event that no credible prospect emerges from the region for the race to succeed Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who is retiring.
Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna F. Edwards, both of whom live in the Washington suburbs, are courting Baltimore officials for endorsements and appearing at fundraisers for city politicians and galas for local advocacy groups.
The Baltimore area has dominated Maryland politics for more than a century, but in the months since Mikulski announced her retirement none of the region's politicians have stepped forward to replace her. That has created a political vacuum the two campaigns are eager to fill.
"We want someone who gets Baltimore," said Del. Brooke E. Lierman, a Democrat who represents a large swath of the city. "We've had real champions in the Senate and we can't afford to lose that."
Though Baltimore might not produce a candidate this time, the city and its suburbs remain an important battleground: More than a third of the state's voters in the 2008 Democratic primary for president voted in Baltimore and its two neighboring counties.
Montgomery and Prince George's counties, by comparison, accounted for nearly 40 percent of the state's vote.
Baltimore and its surrounding neighborhoods could prove particularly important if Edwards and Van Hollen split downstate Democrats. Both candidates are better known around the Capital Beltway than I-695.
Van Hollen, who represents the Montgomery County-based 8th Congressional District, has maintained a dizzying schedule in the city, appearing at union rallies, Democratic clubs and galas. In response to questions from The Baltimore Sun about outreach in the region, the Van Hollen campaign announced 10 new endorsements from Baltimore and Howard county lawmakers.
"He's worked so hard for the Democratic Party and for Democrats," Kelley said. "He's always been progressive, but balanced. And I think Congress needs some balance right now."
Edwards' effort in the city so far has been less intense — if schedules provided by the campaigns are any indication — but she also has appeared in the city frequently, meeting with grass roots activists in Charles Village last month and attending a dinner organized by the Monumental City Bar Association Meeting in April.
Louis C. Fields, who has worked for years to promote African-American history in Baltimore, said he was impressed by what he heard from Edwards at a meet-and-greet gathering held at Terra Cafe last month.
"She's a candidate who's going to be in touch with her constituents because we've already seen that from her," said Fields, who has long been engaged in city politics. "I just think that she has a lot to bring to the table."
Supporters say Edwards' has focused in part on building a network of supporters separate from established power structures already in place.
"Donna has taken a truly grass roots approach to meeting with people in the city," said Lyn Twyman, a domestic violence advocate who has worked in the city and is supporting Edwards. "I think what Baltimore wants to know is whether they can connect with the candidate."
Both Van Hollen and Edwards have reached out to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a City Hall spokesman said, but the conversations were focused on recovery efforts after the riots in April, not politics.
Several state lawmakers said they have received phone calls from both candidates in recent weeks — some in hopes of an endorsement more overtly than others.
But Edwards' approach has led to at least a couple of missteps, longtime followers of city politics said. Wayne R. Frazier Sr., president of the Maryland Washington Minority Companies Association, said he invited both candidates to attend a meeting of his group of prominent black business leaders in May.
Van Hollen showed up. Edwards did not.
Edwards, who represents the Prince George's County-based 4th Congressional District, also skipped a meeting at the end of March put on by the B.E.S.T. Democratic Club, one of the few organized Democratic clubs in the city.
Frazier said he has told Van Hollen he would support him if Rep. Elijah E. Cummings decides not to run.
"At this point," Frazier said, "I think Van Hollen would make a better senator for the state of Maryland."
Frazier's comments underscore a central peril for the candidates as they wade into Baltimore: Cummings, the 11-term lawmaker whose political brand in the state might be second only to Mikulski's.
Though political analysts increasingly believe Cummings will not seek the seat, he has yet to announce a decision — and many donors and lawmakers, out of respect, are waiting for formal word for him before backing another candidate.
Rep. John P. Sarbanes and Rawlings-Blake, both of whom considered running, now say they will not do so. That leaves Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County as the only other elected Democrat who could enter the race and command instant attention.
For now, Ruppersberger remains on the fence.
While downstate politicians have gained ground in recent statewide elections, the region has yet to capture a Senate seat in modern times. The closest was GOP Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, who served from 1969 to 1987. His former House district included portions of Montgomery County, but Mathias was based in Frederick.
Former Rep. Michael D. Barnes, who had deep roots in Montgomery County, ran unsuccessfully in the 1986 Democratic primary for Senate in 1986. He lost to a politician who remains closely associated with Baltimore: Mikulski.
The state's other senator, Ben Cardin, lives in Pikesville.
Kelley, the Baltimore County state senator, echoed others who believe it is unlikely a Baltimore candidate will jump in.
"Timing matters," she said, "and I think too much time has elapsed."