Cummings decision hangs over Md. Senate race

“The race is already starting to shape up,” Democratic strategist says of Senate contest.

Ask Rep. Elijah E. Cummings how he views his role in helping Baltimore to heal from the April riots and the Democrat offers the kind of response that has become his trademark.

"I see my role as being all up in it," he says confidently.

But ask whether he could be more effective at helping the city if he were a member of the Senate than by staying in the Baltimore-based House seat he has occupied for 19 years, and Cummings, 64, shakes his head and responds with uncharacteristic uncertainty: "I don't know."

Three months after floating his name as a possible candidate for the Senate seat that will be left vacant by retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Cummings has done little to indicate he is pursuing the contest. He isn't raising money, interviewing staff for a campaign or trying to lock down potential endorsements.

With the two declared candidates for the Democratic nomination moving quickly to do all of those things, analysts say the question for Cummings is increasingly shifting from "will he run?" to "how much longer can he wait to decide?"

"The race is already starting to shape up," said Mike Morrill, a Democratic strategist based in the state. "People have to start seeing action or they start to move to candidates who they do view as moving forward."

Rep. Chris Van Hollen launched his campaign days after Mikulski announced her retirement in March, and Rep. Donna F. Edwards followed within a week.

No other politician has the ability to shake up the Senate contest like Cummings, who polls better than just about everyone else in Maryland.

Both well-known and popular statewide, the 11-term congressman won wide praise — and enhanced his national profile — for his actions and influence during the demonstrations and riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray.

Gray, 25, died in April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. Cummings spent days walking with protesters, calming rioters and serving as a voice for the city on national television.

He is also well known on Capitol Hill, where he has chaired the Congressional Black Caucus and is now the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee — a position that has put him at the center of a succession of controversies: the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, scandals at the Secret Service and allegations that the IRS targeted some conservative groups for extra scrutiny.

"The Baltimore base is Elijah Cummings' for the taking," said Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman. "I imagine the unexpected Baltimore riots have complicated the Senate run decision not only for Elijah, but for other potential Baltimore candidates as well."

Those close to Cummings say he seems genuinely conflicted about the decision. If he ran for the Senate next year, he could not also seek re-election to his House seat. If he ran for Mikulski's seat and lost, he would be out of office.

"I love this city with all my heart," Cummings said recently. "The people of Baltimore supported me. ... Those are the same people who sent me to Congress. I don't forget."

But Cummings is less forthcoming about whether he will run for the Senate. He said people across the state, not just in the Baltimore area, have encouraged him to run. He said he hopes to make a decision soon.

He is not the only one who hopes so.

Given Cummings' standing in the Baltimore region, his candidacy would likely squeeze out other lawmakers who have said they are considering a run — namely, Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John P. Sarbanes, both of Baltimore County. The more time goes by, the less running room Ruppersberger, Sarbanes and other Baltimore-based candidates would have to raise money and mount a credible run if Cummings decided against it.

A spokesman for Sarbanes could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for Ruppersberger declined to comment.

Edwards, of Prince George's County, and Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, both live in the Washington suburbs.

Politicians who would be interested in running for Cummings' seat representing the 7th Congressional District if he decided to run for the Senate are also thinking about the timeline.

"At this point, I'm just waiting to see what Congressman Cummings decides," said Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat.

"It's getting late for him as a candidate to start raising money," Branch said. "And it's getting late for the other individuals who might want to be a candidate in the 7th District to raise money."

Cummings, who has not faced a competitive challenger since he was elected to Congress in 1996, had about $890,000 in his campaign account at the end of March. He raised about $89,000 during the first three months of the year.

Van Hollen reported $2.7 million in the bank after raising $1.2 million in the first quarter.

Edwards had about $368,000 on hand.

The average cost of a winning Senate campaign in 2012 was more than $11 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Raising that kind of money gets more difficult the longer Cummings waits.

"Why keep holding off?" asked Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "We don't know anything more today than we knew a month ago."

Van Hollen has moved quickly to secure endorsements from elected officials in the state, including from the county executives in Montgomery and Prince George's counties — the state's two largest jurisdictions.

Edwards is hoping to fire up progressives and has the backing of national groups that support female, pro-abortion rights and liberal candidates.

No Republican has announced a campaign for the Senate seat — an indication, perhaps, of the challenge the party faces in a statewide contest in heavily Democratic Maryland during a high-turnout presidential election year.

Chrys Kefalas, an aide to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and speechwriter for former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., is exploring a run.

State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat who is mentioned frequently as a potential candidate for Congress, said Cummings could probably keep his House seat "for the rest of his life," if he wanted to.

Giving that up for the prospect of an unpredictable statewide race, she said, would give anyone pause.

"He knows how to make good political decisions," Gladden said. "And he knows how to make good decisions for Baltimore."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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