WASHINGTON — Democratic Rep. John Delaney's flirtation with next year's governors race has inspired an early shadow primary in the state's westernmost congressional district, where a half dozen prominent Democrats are expressing an interest in his seat.
The wealthy former banker, in his third term representing the Montgomery County-based 6th Congressional District, has said he will make a decision about the governor's race in late June. If he runs, it would likely set up a bruising primary in 2018 for a rare open Maryland congressional seat.
An opening would also offer Maryland Republicans their best opportunity to pick up a second seat in the state's congressional delegation. State GOP leaders say they are watching the district closely and expect interest even if Delaney runs for re-election.
The 6th District, which stretches from Potomac to the mountains of Western Maryland, is the most competitive district in the state. Delaney won re-election in the last midterm election by less than 3,000 votes.
Maryland House Majority Leader C. William "Bill" Frick and Del. Aruna Miller, both Democrats, have filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission that allows them to raise money for a race.
Miller, a 52-year-old civil engineer from Darnestown, is the immediate past chair of the women's caucus in the General Assembly. She told The Baltimore Sun that she is "definitely in" if Delaney decides to pursue a campaign for governor.
Miller got involved in politics after George W. Bush's victory in the 2000 presidential election. She and other Democrats said they are preparing campaigns for the district now out of necessity.
"In order to keep the district Democratic we're going to have to start as early as possible," she said. "I'm going at it full-throttle."
Frick, a 42-year-old attorney from Bethesda, says he will run for the seat if Delaney challenges Republican Gov. Larry Hogan next year.
"If Congressman Delaney chooses to take on Larry Hogan, we need a strong Democrat who can hold this seat," Frick said. "I am prepared to be that strong Democrat."
Three other state lawmakers, one prominent businessman and a former Democratic nominee for the seat told The Sun they are also interested if Delaney chooses not to seek reelection. The number of people publicly stating their interest in a seat held by an incumbent of the same party is unusual.
"People are getting their [butts] kicked out here, and they need someone to stand up for them in Congress," said Democratic state Sen. Roger Manno. "That's why I'm considering it."
When Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore was considering a run for Senate in 2015, only one other prominent Democrat announced interest in his House seat — and only briefly. The Rev. Jamal H. Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple A.M.E. Church in Baltimore, ended his nascent campaign after eight days.
State GOP chairman Dirk Haire said the 6th District is on his party's radar. Former Secret Service Agent Dan Bongino nearly unseated Delaney in 2014, even after national Republicans largely wrote off the district.
Delaney has performed far better in presidential election years, when Democratic turnout is generally higher.
This year the National Republican Congressional Committee has named the seat as one of its 36 initial targets.
"If the seat is open," Haire said, "I expect it to be hotly contested and a very good pick-up opportunity."
Bongino has since moved to Florida, where he ran an unsuccessful House campaign last year.
Delaney's Republican opponent last year, national security consultant Amie Hoeber, said she might take another run at the Sixth District as well. She has been showing up at local Republican dinners throughout the district, and is planning to make an announcement in July.
"I am keeping my options open," Hoeber said. "The fact that I lost the election doesn't mean that I have dropped out of the world."
The early jockeying points to the potential for another feisty election cycle in Maryland's Washington suburbs, a region that has become increasingly important for politics statewide.
Last year's election in the neighboring 8th Congressional District drew nine Democrats and five Republicans, and became the most expensive House contest in the nation.
Democrat Jamie Raskin, then a state senator, won that election. One of the other candidates in the race, Kathleen Matthews, is now chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party. Another contender, Democratic businessman David Trone, has remained visible in political circles. He told The Sun that he, too, would consider running in the 6th District if Delaney didn't.
"My focus has been on [running for] county executive under the assumption that John Delaney will continue his exemplary work in Congress," Trone said in a statement. "But if John decides to run for another office, he would have my full and enthusiastic support, and I would consider running for the 6th District seat before making a final decision."
Trone's interest has the potential to change the dynamic. The liquor retailer spent more than $13 million of his own money on his campaign for the 8th District last year, blanketing airwaves in the expensive Washington media market. If Trone appears to be taking a serious look at the 6th District, it would put pressure on other Democrats to begin fundraising now.
But it will be difficult for any of the potential candidates to raise money until Delaney clarifies his plans. Few will want to put money behind a candidate who ultimately may not run.
Rumors have swirled recently that Delaney is also taking a look at a run for president in 2020 — talk that was amplified when MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Kathleen's husband, said during his program last week the congressman was setting up an office in Iowa. A Delaney spokesman denied that his boss had office space in the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus state.
Frick and Miller said they have spoken with Delaney, and have his blessing to begin laying the groundwork for a campaign. Delaney confirmed those discussions, but warned against reading anything into them.
The congressman reiterated that he hasn't made up his mind.
"I said I was fine with them doing it," Delaney said. "I don't think there's any downside to them raising some federal money."
Delaney is one of several Democrats considering a challenge to Hogan, the popular Republican who won an upset victory in 2014.
Baltimore entrepreneur and author Alec Ross, a former advisor to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, has announced his candidacy. Former Maryland attorney general Douglas F. Gansler, county executives Kevin Kamenetz and Rushern Baker, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., former NAACP executive director Benjamin Jealous and former Venable chairman James Shea are also exploring runs.
Delaney has shown a willingness to invest his own personal fortune in his campaigns — meaning he will not have to scramble to raise early money for a governor's race, and he has to worry less than others about Democratic challengers at home.
Delaney unseated Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett in 2012 after Democrats in Annapolis redrew the boundaries of the district to favor their party. He defeated Republican Amie Hoeber by 16 points during last year's presidential election.
Del. Kirill Reznik of Montgomery County said the seat is "something that I'm looking at." He noted his legislative district lies wholly within the 6th District — giving him a possible advantage in name recognition.
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Reznik said repeatedly he thought Delaney was "doing a great job," and that "I actually don't even want him to go."
The possibility of an open seat has also drawn attention from Del. Andrew Platt of Gaithersberg, who has some experience running in the district. Platt worked for former state Sen. Robert Garagiola's congressional campaign in 2012.
The Democrat said he is "taking a serious look at it."
"I think there are going to be enough millionaires and insiders in this primary, and I'm not one of them," he said. "You have to stop sending the same type of people to Washington."
Andrew Duck, the Democratic nominee for the district in 2006 and 2010, said he, too, is interested in taking another shot at it.