A high-ranking Republican state lawmaker from Baltimore County is building a campaign for U.S. Senate, giving some state GOP leaders hope that the party can compete for the seat now held by retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Del. Kathy Szeliga, the minority whip in the House of Delegates, is alerting fellow Republicans that she plans to seek the seat, despite the advantage Democrats will have in Maryland next year. Her effort is drawing early support from some of the state's best-known GOP figures.
Republicans, a minority in Maryland, will face steep odds in the Senate race next year, when the presidential election is likely to spur more Democrats to the polls. Low turnout in Baltimore and Montgomery and Prince George's counties last year helped Republican Larry Hogan upset Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown in the governor's race.
But Szeliga and her supporters — including Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, for whom she once worked, and Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh — insist there is a path to victory for the GOP, just as there was for Hogan.
"We have the right message; it just has not always been communicated well," said Szeliga, 53, a Perry Hall woman who was first elected to the General Assembly in 2010. "Over on the Democratic side, voters can pick one career politician or another."
Mikulski announced in March that she would end a 30-year Senate career in 2017. Given Democrats' 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration, virtually all attention since then has focused on that party's candidates. Reps. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County and Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County have been campaigning aggressively for the job.
But some Republicans have raised their hands as well. Chrys Kefalas, 35, a former aide to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and a former speechwriter for Attorney General Eric H. Holder, has not committed to the race, but is campaigning. Richard J. Douglas, 58, a former Pentagon official, is seeking the GOP nomination for Senate for a second time.
Neither has held elected office previously.
Schuh, who is one of five elected Republican county executives in Maryland, said Szeliga's role as minority whip gives her a statewide network of officials and volunteers who can help her reach the state's scattered pockets of GOP voters.
"She has the respect of … her Republican colleagues and primary voters," Schuh said. "She is a mainstream conservative in the same vein as Governor Hogan, and I believe is in tune with the Maryland electorate as it is today."
Kefalas, who has also picked up support from some well-known Republicans, said he welcomes "all vigorous debate" but added in a statement that "Maryland Republicans recognize that I am the candidate with the experience, vision and leadership necessary to win statewide in 2016."
The Kefalas campaign said that Arizona Sen. John McCain is hosting an event for him on Tuesday, and he has also drawn support from former Ehrlich chief of staff James C. "Chip" DiPaula, who called him a "great candidate" in a brief interview Sunday.
Maryland last elected a Republican senator in 1980, Charles McC. Mathias. But both Hogan and Ehrlich have demonstrated that the GOP can win statewide in deeply blue Maryland. A lackluster presidential contest that drives down turnout — or a slip-up by the Democratic nominee — could give Republicans a shot.
Both Szeliga and Kefalas would also be able to emphasize their Baltimore roots in contrast with the two Democratic candidates, who are both from the Washington suburbs.
That possibility has captured attention from Republicans in Washington. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said he has encouraged Szeliga to run and plans to co-host a fundraiser for her. He has hosted an event for Kefalas, as well, and stressed that he is not endorsing a candidate at this point.
Gillespie ran an unsuccessful campaign for Senate in Virginia last year, losing narrowly to Democrat Mark Warner.
"I want to make sure national Republicans don't write off the Maryland Senate seat the way they did Virginia's last year, and am encouraging candidates to run," he said.
David N. Bossie, president and chairman of conservative advocacy group Citizens United, said he expects to support Szeliga, whom he called a "tremendous candidate."
Because state lawmakers are elected in off presidential years, Szeliga can keep her seat in Annapolis even if she loses for Senate.
As in other states, the Republican electorate in Maryland has been divided among conservatives and moderates. Observers say Szeliga, who became the minority whip in a 2013 leadership coup, is well positioned to bridge that gap.
"One of the things that I value about Kathy … is that she has worked hard in the vineyard for years, building the party," said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a former House minority leader who came within half a percentage point of winning the gubernatorial election in 1994. "Kathy is a phenomenal networker."
GOP lawmakers in Washington currently are divided over an effort to tie government funding to cuts for Planned Parenthood. Asked about the debate, Szeliga said she would support legislation to keep the government open even if the measure did not address funding for the organization, which performs abortions and other medical procedures.
"I think it is unwise to shut down the government," she said.
The Baltimore native earned a degree in elementary education at Towson State University, worked briefly as a teacher and created a construction company with her husband in Perry Hall.
She got her start in politics when a family friend, former state lawmaker James M. Kelly, decided to run for office. She worked for six years as chief of staff for Harris when he was a state senator.
"Marylanders just elected a Republican governor," said Harris, the state's only Republican in Congress. "A working mom from Baltimore, who wants to make things better for Maryland families and stop the dysfunction, will be able to put together a coalition that will carry her to victory."