WASHINGTON — The Maryland Senate race is waiting on a key component: a candidate with close ties to Baltimore, the home to two figures with national name recognition or the potential for it: Rep. Elijah Cummings and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards have both announced bids to replace the retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, but neither candidate has close ties to the the state's largest city, a bastion of Democratic voters in the state key to winning a statewide election, especially in a presidential election year. And a lot of Democratic interests have noticed, leaving the focus on Cummings and Rawlings-Blake's intentions.
In recent days, Rawlings-Blake's interest in a campaign for the seat of retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski has cooled, according to a former aide who spoke with her late last week said, but she isn't ruling out a run completely. If Rawlings-Blake cannot secure big enough financial commitments or a major endorsement — like that of Mikulski herself — she is unlikely to run, two people familiar with the mayor's thinking said. Neither was authorized to speak on the record about the mayor's plans.
Many people believed Rawlings-Blake was going to make a run at the governor's mansion when Maryland elects a new executive in 2018. For now, she's gearing up for re-election as mayor, the aide said. The source said Rawlings-Blake gave no timeline for her decision on whether or not she'd run for Mikulski's seat.
"Making the transition from being a big city mayor to a U.S. senator … that transition can carry a real strain as far as it concerns her family, travel, and obligations," the source said. "These are all the things she's thinking about."
Rawlings-Blake hasn't said much about the race publicly, and her spokesperson did not return requests for comment. A senior Democratic operative familiar with the mid-Atlantic political landscape suggested that the lack of a Baltimore presence is more determinative factor than any any other dynamic in the primary. It's why Rep. Elijah Cummings has flirted with the idea.
And if Cummings should decide to run, another source suggested Rawlings-Blake was likely to support him in the primary.
Cummings' office did not immediately respond to a question about a timeline for his decision. But on Thursday, Politico reported Reps. Donna Edwards and Van Hollen spoke with Cummings at length after Mikulski announced she was stepping down — and Cummings began mulling a run himself.
Unlike the still unfolding situation further up I-95, the decision by Edwards to run for the seat came with little to no concern regarding whether another woman entered the race, an aide told BuzzFeed News. And as the only woman to officially make her intentions clear in the Democratic primary, Edwards is making the case she has broad enough appeal to win.
"Donna Edwards can absolutely win statewide," said a well-placed source in a grassroots progressive women's group said. "Primary voters are Baltimore County and African-American voters. We want to see a woman win the primary. So we are waiting out to see who gets in and will go from there."
That does not, however, mean she's completely locked down support across the board. A spokesperson from EMILY's List said the organization, which supports pro-choice women candidates, has held recruiting discussions with both Rawlings-Blake and Edwards. EMILY's List and other groups like Planned Parenthood will likely exert pressure to replace Mikulski — seen as a Democratic pioneer for female politicians — with another woman.
A source who spoke on the condition of anonymity said EMILY's List is still actively recruiting Rawlings-Blake despite echoes she may be leaning toward not running. It was not immediately clear why, for instance, EMILY's List did not immediately get behind Edwards, as they did for California Attorney General Kamala Harris almost right after she announced her Senate candidacy in California. (EMILY's List sent an email to supporters announcing Harris' candidacy and soliciting donations, but the communication was not an official endorsement.)
Edwards has drummed up significant interest in her campaign, but Maryland Democrats point to some concerns, as well: her two campaigns in 2006 and 2008 were both hard fought affairs (both a positive and negative) and concerns that she would lose her seat representing one of the wealthiest majority black populations in the country. But people are still waiting on Rawlings-Blake to make a decision, one that would tilt the scale in her favor over Edwards.
"[Rawlings-Blake's] a major force," said an influential Democratic strategist with deep ties in the state. "It will dramatically impact the dynamics of the race just in terms of the gender equation. One woman in the race with several men one is one dynamic gives Donna an advantage. If you divide the gender-oriented voters, I think it makes the race much more competitive. And Stephanie has a lot of political skill, financial resources and a Baltimore base. There's a lot of talk about a shift in the realm of politics away from Baltimore City to the Washington suburbs, and I think that's true. However, if you broaden it to the Baltimore metropolitan area, as people found out in the gubernatorial race, Baltimore still has significant sway."
Edwards boasts a number of positives as well in a statewide race: in addition to the hard-fought campaigning, Edwards she can claim a number of progressive allies, which could help boost her against, for instance, Van Hollen in a crowded primary. Aides close to Edwards say she and Mikulski have a great working relationship; as the ranking member on Appropriations, Edwards has worked closely with her in the past. Whether that could mean an endorsement is something aides aren't hedging their bets on. A top Edwards aide touted the relationship between their candidate and Mikulski, a connection brought to bear by virtue of Maryland's almost exclusively male Congressional delegation.
In a potential Senate candidacy, Rawlings-Blake is said to want the endorsement of former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the predecessor to Sheila Dixon as Baltimore mayor, a veteran Democratic consultant familiar with Democratic politics said. A spokesperson for O'Malley said his office wouldn't comment on private conversations he's had with prospective candidates.
The entrance of Van Hollen, and Reid's early endorsement, has already spiked tensions inside Maryland. At least one donor has openly and publicly criticized Reid over the decision.
"For Harry Reid to come out and endorse Van Hollen is insulting period," Steve Phillips, the founder of the progressive group PowerPAC+ told BuzzFeed News earlier this month. "But to do it on the anniversary of the Selma 50th anniversary — to make an endorsement that would make the Senate less diverse — is outrageous and insulting."
Others have questioned how much Reid's backing will really matter in Maryland.
"His endorsement doesn't equal a ton of money," a former Democratic congressional aide said. "It gives Van Hollen access but not the full backing of the Senate like [Mikulski's] endorsement would, which will carry more weight than Sen. Reid's."
Darren Sands is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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