Contenders for Mikulski's seat

Who will fill Sen. Mikulski's seat once she retires? A look at the potential candidates.

Political observers in Maryland will soon be treated to a rare phenomenon: a battle royal for an open United States Senate seat.

A U.S. Senate seat is a highly coveted prize in American politics. Here in Maryland, those politicos fortunate enough to achieve that pinnacle like to stay atop it for a while. Sen. Paul Sarbanes served for 30 years. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who announced retirement plans Monday, will have as well by the time she completes her current term.

Consequently, many ambitious state politicians who covet serving in the United States Senate are often frustrated, completing their careers long before the opportunity presents itself. And the level of competition an open seat attracts is fierce, given its rarity.

In 2006, Reps. Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume battled for the seat vacated by Senator Sarbanes. Mr. Cardin ultimately faced then-Lt. Gov. (and future Republican National Committee Chairman) Michael Steele in a race that attracted national attention.

Back in 1986, Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski beat a governor, a fellow House member and a popular Baltimore county executive to win the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat she now holds.

And every indication is that the 2016 U.S. Senate race will be every bit as competitive.

Among possible Democratic contenders, early speculation has focused on the following:

John Delaney: The sixth district congressman contemplated a challenge to Senator Mikulski in 2010 and then opted to run for the House. Current speculation is that he is more interested in running for governor instead.

Donna Edwards: The iconoclastic Prince George's congresswoman is well-positioned to wage an outsider's campaign in a primary dominated by establishment figures. But she is little known outside of the Washington suburbs, and fundraising will be a challenge.

Kweisi Mfume: Will the former Baltimore congressman and NAACP leader make another Senate bid, finally run for mayor of Baltimore (as some reports suggest) or stay out of politics entirely?

Heather Mizeur: The former delegate and one-time senatorial staffer's well-regarded campaign for governor helped her build a grassroots network and name recognition. Plus, her supporters are the kind of diehard activists who can be expected to vote in primaries. But can she raise the money needed to compete?

Martin O'Malley: The former governor — a protege of Senator Mikulski — retains popularity among many Democratic activists. However, past Maryland governors leave office unpopular and with few political options. Governor Harry Hughes — the last governor to run for an open Senate seat in 1986 — came in third in the Democratic primary. If he gets in, Mr. O'Malley should not expect a coronation. Then again, he may be seeking higher office instead.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake: The mayor of Baltimore has grown her national profile through roles at the Democratic National Committee and the U. S. Conference of Mayors. Her youth and energy may resonate with a Democratic primary electorate, However, one wonders whether Baltimore's entrenched school and crime problems will haunt her.

John Sarbanes: The younger Sarbanes has been quietly building a statewide grassroots organization, meeting with young Democratic activists around the state. That said, Senator Cardin's nephew lost his bid to become Maryland's attorney general. Are state voters ready to embrace another dynasty?

Chris Van Hollen: Another longtime senatorial aspirant, Mr. Van Hollen has built a national fundraising network due to past service at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Cerebral and well-regarded by liberals, his challenge will be to differentiate himself from better-known candidates.

Of course, should they choose to run, Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger and Elijah Cummings would be formidable candidates as well.

Among Republicans, possible candidates include:

Bob Ehrlich: Serving in the U.S. Senate was the former governor's original ambition. While he remains popular among the party faithful, he has disavowed any desire to rejoin Maryland's political fray.

Laura Neuman: The former Anne Arundel county executive has a great personal story to tell. She is young, moderate and has especially strong appeal to independent and female voters.

Michael Steele: The GOP's 2006 senatorial nominee and former Maryland lieutenant governor under Mr. Ehrlich has never closed the door on a possible comeback. But would he be willing to forego his MSNBC gig?

The Senate race is only of the beginning of the story. As political heavyweights jump into that contest, it will create opportunities for upwardly-mobile politicos up and down the political food chain. Senator Mikulski's announcement will transform the entire political landscape. This may create headaches for voters, but for political observers like me, it will be great theater to watch.

Richard J. Cross III is a former Capitol Hill and Annapolis press secretary and speechwriter. His e-mail address: rcrossiii@comcast.net.

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