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Like the ringing of an enormous gong, the unexpected announcement by U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski that she will not seek re-election has rattled the china and interrupted the conversations in the corridors of political power throughout Maryland. The prospect of a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs to a nonincumbent is the first domino toppling, setting off a chain reaction that will be felt in Washington, Annapolis and various county seats, perhaps especially in the Baltimore-Washington region.

The announcement rang all the louder because it is something that happens so seldom in Maryland, where turnover of congressional seats happens at a crawl. Nationally, the average tenure of House members is 8.8 years. In Maryland, it's 12.5 years. Mikulski's predecessor served for 18 years and the predecessor to Sen. Ben Cardin held the seat for 30 years.

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Also, because the nation's lawmakers cannot run for two seats at once, those holding seats in the House of Representatives will have to abandon their jobs to run for Mikulski's seat.

So far, seven of Maryland's eight representatives in the House — six Democrats and one Republican — have said they are interested in the open seat. One of them, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, has confirmed that he is a candidate. In the Baltimore region, Democratic Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Elijah E. Cummings and Republican Rep. Andy Harris have expressed interest in running.

If this gets to be a crowded Senate race, which it could — few local politicos will be able to resist a shot at such a rare opportunity in Maryland politics — vacancies could open in the House to an extent not seen in years. Eyeing those vacancies on Capitol Hill will be many in the General Assembly, in Baltimore City and in county seats like Towson and Ellicott City.

The ripple effect of Mikulski's big rock dropped in a small political pond will also extend to the staffs, pollsters, volunteers, fundraisers and others within the orbit of elected office holders. Phones are ringing. Favors are being called in. Support networks are being tested.

What does all this bode for constituents? A new era in Maryland politics is coming and, perhaps sadly, another is ending. Whoever ends up taking Mikulski's seat, however estimable he or she may be, will never replace the scrappy "Babs," the Polish-American social worker who never forgot her roots in Highlandtown. She will be missed, and not just in Baltimore.

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