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It's hard to imagine, but Baltimore County, now represented in Congress by four different elected officials, could find itself with a totally different cast of characters late next year.

That's because all four of the county's congressmen — Dutch Ruppersberger, Elijah Cummings, John Sarbanes and Andy Harris — are considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Barbara Mikulski.

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Maryland's senior senator says she will retire when her term expires in late 2016. That shocking announcement has whetted the appetites of a slew of officials.

Former Gov. Martin O'Malley says he won't run, as has Rep. Steny Hoyer.

But just about everyone else is interested.

That includes Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the four Baltimore County congressmen.

The early front-runner is Rep. Chris Van Hollen from Montgomery County. He's got $1.7 million in his campaign account, is a rising star in the House and set his sights on the Senate years ago.

Taking on Van Hollen won't be easy since he starts with a huge base of votes in Montgomery, the state's largest jurisdiction.

Ruppersberger is tempted to try but he's 69 and historically has shied away from races where he's not the favorite.

Cummings could corner the African-American vote in the county and Baltimore City, but he's established himself in the House as a national spokesman for liberal and civil rights causes.

He may not want to give that up.

Besides, he has never run a statewide campaign or needed to raise millions.

Sarbanes also must decide if he wants to give up a safe House seat for a Senate race he might not win.

His father, Paul, took that chance, but this time the odds are not as favorable.

Harris, meanwhile, faces a different challenge. He is now in his third term and has become a leading voice for doctrinaire conservative policies.

He might well win the Republican primary but his right-wing positions would make it difficult for him to win a general election in Democratic Maryland.

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After all, there will be a presidential election next year, too, which generates a huge turnout. In Maryland, that means many more liberal voters coming to the polls.

This could make it virtually impossible for an ultra-conservative like Harris to win the Senate race.

But if Democrats nominate one of the other candidates thinking about running, like former Del. Heather Mizeur or Rep. Donna Edwards, Harris' chances would improve markedly.

Mizeur and Edwards are far-left politicians who might turn off moderate Democrats.

It would be a shame if all four Baltimore County congressional incumbents gave up their seats to run for the Senate. Having so many congressmen gives the county far greater ability to leverage funds from Washington.

The loss of Mikulski will hurt the county, too, as well as the rest of Maryland.

The diminutive senator has been an effective voice for her home state.

A former social worker from Highlandtown where her father ran a bakery, Mikulski rose to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee. This guaranteed that she could divert funds to worthy projects in Maryland.

But now Senate Democrats are in the minority and Mikulski has less power. That plus her age — 79 — may have convinced her to end her career after nearly 50 years of public service.

Mikulski's departure is also a blow for women's rights.

She has been a pioneering senator and the loudest advocate for feminist causes.

Politics in Maryland will not be the same once she is gone.

Barry Rascovar, of Reisterstown, writes a blog, http://www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

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