WASHINGTON — Hoping to clear a potentially crowded field of Democratic primary opponents, Rep. Chris Van Hollen on Wednesday became the first candidate to announce a run for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated next year by retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Van Hollen, 56, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, made the announcement in an email to supporters — and the news was rapidly followed by endorsements from Maryland's Attorney General and one the state's most prominent African American leaders.
"In my very first election for Congress I believed that people were tired of politics as usual, and I ran a campaign based on key issues and ideas that matter to our future," the Montgomery County lawmaker said in the email. "The same is true today."
Van Hollen, who declined an interview request through an aide, is the first to enter an uncertain field for the coveted seat. Seven of the state's eight House members — everyone but Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House — have expressed an interest in the seat. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is considering a run, as is former gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur.
Also on Wednesday, former lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said she is considering a run.
"I've always wanted to work for the people of Maryland," Townsend said Wednesday.
But Van Hollen, a seven-term House member who has about $1.7 million in his federal campaign account, is the first to announce a run. And he quickly picked up high-profile support from the Washington suburbs.
"People have confidence in him," Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett said. "He has a solid record to run on."
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh also threw his support behind Van Hollen, saying that he "will make a terrific senator."
Van Hollen, who lives in Kensington, is widely considered a savvy political operator and a possible future House speaker. But Democrats could be years away from recapturing the House majority, and Van Hollen has long been interested in the Senate.
In a lengthy statement, Van Hollen noted his efforts on the economy, the Chesapeake Bay, and the recent release of Alan Gross, the former aid worker from Maryland who was imprisoned in Cuba for five years.
He called for more investments in education, research and infrastructure.
"Even though our nation is politically polarized today, I continue to believe in the power of ideas to bring people of goodwill together for the common good," he wrote.
The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org raised questions about Van Hollen's candidacy — and, in particular, supportive comments he made about the Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction panel created in 2010 by President Barack Obama. The panel proposed several changes to Social Security, such as raising the retirement age.
"As he enters the race, we request that he clarify his position on Social Security," MoveOn spokesman Nick Berning said in a statement. "It was deeply disappointing when Rep. Van Hollen said in 2012 that the Bowles-Simpson plan that would have cut Social Security benefits was 'the right way to go.'"
Van Hollen was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to a U.S. foreign service officer and a State Department intelligence analyst. His Baltimore-born father served as ambassador to Sri Lanka in the 1970s under Republican Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford.
A graduate of Swarthmore College, with degrees in public policy from Harvard and law from Georgetown, Van Hollen served as an aide to Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias and to Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer. He worked with Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes as a staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He was elected to one term in the state House of Delegates and two in the state Senate. He won election to Congress in 2002.
Seen as close to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Van Hollen took over the party's national campaign operation in 2007 and led it for the 2008 and 2010 election cycles. He recently has rejoined the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as finance chair for the 2016 cycle.
Mikulski announced on Monday that she will retire in 2016 rather than seeking a sixth term.
Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this report.