Democrats across Maryland have publicly mourned Sen. Barbara Mikulski's decision to retire in 2016. With that decision, though, came a reason for many to celebrate: a rare opportunity to move up the state's political ladder.
With Rep. Chris Van Hollen announcing his Senate bid last week, Rep. Donna Edwards reportedly preparing to announce a campaign this week, and another four House Democrats signaling interest in running, local Democrats are eagerly—and not very subtly—sizing up their prospects for a rare political promotion in a state where only one congressional "safe seat" has been open in the last decade.
The talk has trickled down deep into the local level, where politicians are growing giddy about not only potential openings in Congress but also possible state legislative vacancies caused by incumbents in Annapolis jumping to Washington.
"People are already talking about, what if a state senator runs and wins? Who's going to take that seat? And if someone on the council wins, who will take theirs?" said Montgomery County Council member Hans Riemer, a Democrat considering running to replace Van Hollen in the 8th Congressional District.
The shuffle could dramatically reshape Maryland's political ranks for the first time in decades thanks to rare open primaries. Edwards's seat hasn't been open since 1992; she defeated a veteran incumbent in a 2008 primary to win the seat. The Washington Post reported this weekend that Edwards would announce a Senate campaign Tuesday.
"If they all stayed in the race, it would be a sea change of new faces in the next Congress," said Terry Lierman, a former chief of staff for House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer—the only Democrat out of seven in the congressional delegation who has ruled out a Senate bid.
Since Van Hollen was the first Senate candidate to announce his intentions, so far the scramble is playing out most openly in his district, which he has held since 2002. Several potential successors are talking up campaigns, but some of them are also keeping an eye on state or local offices that others might vacate to run for Congress.
"I definitely wouldn't take it [the state legislature] off the table if I didn't run," said William Jawando, a former Obama administration staffer weighing a bid for Van Hollen's seat. Jawando, a Democrat, narrowly lost a primary bid for the Maryland House of Delegates in 2014.
On Monday, state Del. Kumar Barve became the first candidate to formally declare his congressional campaign in the district. Marriott executive Kathleen Matthews has also said she's planning to run. They'll likely have plenty of company, with a slew of Montgomery County Council members, state delegates, and state senators signaling their interest in the seat. Those officeholders aren't up for reelection until 2018, meaning they don't have to risk their current office while trying to climb the ladder.
"These opportunities don't come along very frequently," said Nancy Floreen, a Montgomery City Council member also weighing a congressional run. "And I don't have anything to lose by taking that chance."
In Edwards' 4th District, the air has buzzed with names of potential Democratic replacements since she first showed interest in the Senate seat. Democrats in the district mentioned former Prince George's County state's attorney Glenn Ivey, two county council members (Derrick Davis and Andrea Harrison), three state delegates (Dereck Davis, Joseline Peña-Melnyk, and Jay Walker), state Sen. Anthony Muse, and former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown as some of the possibilities.
"As it appeared more and more likely that Congresswoman Edwards would run, you had folks immediately begin to make calls to other elected officials and to other folks who could raise money," said Mel Franklin, the chairman of the Prince George's County Council. "The interest was immediate."
The domino effect Mikulski set off will look familiar to observers from another state where political progress was impeded for years. When John Kerry left the Senate in 2013 to become secretary of State, he set off a cascading series of special elections—Senate, then House, then state Senate—as Massachusetts Democrats battled to move up and left vacancies behind them.
Under Maryland law, there are no special elections to fill vacancies in the state legislature. Instead, local party committees play a key role in choosing replacements for senators and delegates for their own party, with the governor issuing the final appointment.
In Montgomery County, Democratic Party Chair Darrell Anderson predicted that no shortage of state delegates would apply to a state Senate seat if, say, state Sen. Jamie Raskin runs for Congress and wins. (Raskin said he is "actively considering" a run in the 8th District.) Anderson said that state Senate seat, one of the most Democratic in the county, could draw as many as 25 applicants if Raskin moved up.
"There are a lot of talented people underneath," Anderson said. "A lot of people have been a little frustrated they haven't been able to move up."
"Maryland is a get-in-line kind of state," said Riemer, the Montgomery County Council member. "A lot of people have served patiently before taking a shot at higher office."
Jack Fitzpatrick contributed to this article
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Kimberly Railey is an editorial fellow for National Journal Hotline. Prior to joining National Journal, she covered Congress at the Washington bureau of The Dallas Morning News. She has also written for The Boston Globe, USA TODAY, and The Christian Science Monitor. Originally from South Florida, she graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where she served as managing editor of The Daily Northwestern.