Maryland Senate & House: Chesapeake Churn

by Jacob Rubashkin February 13, 2023 · 2:04 PM EST

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin has not yet announced whether he plans to run for a fourth term, but the Old Line State’s political world is already bracing for a historic primary to replace him, with the potential to reshape the state’s politics in substantial ways up and down the ballot.

Not only would an open Senate seat in solidly Democratic Maryland result in a competitive primary race, but it could also open up as many as three of eight House seats. And another House seat will also potentially be up for grabs due to a speculated retirement. Altogether, 2024 could be a watershed moment for the state at all levels.

Senate. Open Senate seats in Maryland are generational affairs. There have been just three over the past 70 years: in 1962, 2006, and 2016.

Maryland is now a solidly Democratic state at the federal level, and with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, 64, nowhere near retirement, next year could be the last best chance for a whole crop of politicians to advance to the Senate.

Cardin’s end-of-year campaign finance report only fueled speculation that he would not seek re-election; the Democrat raised just $29,000 in the final three months of 2022.

But those tea leaves are muddled. Maryland Democrats agree that money would be no object to Cardin if he did run for re-election. 

“If Ben Cardin runs he will win re-election, period, full stop,” said one longtime Maryland political operative, who drew a distinction between Cardin and the aging Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, whose indecision has not kept Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff, and Barbara Lee from jumping in the race, as well as neighboring Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who may also face a credible challenge from his left. “The serious contenders for the seat will step back, full stop.”

That means there is little incentive for him to kick his fundraising into high gear. Especially because, as another longtime Democratic source who has worked with Cardin told Inside Elections, “Ben just doesn’t like fundraising.”

Will he retire? “Everybody assumes so, but nobody knows for certain,” says one Democrat. The result is a shadow race for Senate, with potential candidates unwilling to announce and laying the groundwork for a run that may never happen. 

Conversations with a half-dozen veteran Maryland political strategists suggest a competitive primary with several tiers of candidates. The two seen as most formidable and likely to run are Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks and 6th District Rep. David Trone. Rep. Jamie Raskin, from the 8th District, is also seen as a top-tier candidate, but for a number of reasons is less likely to run. Rep. John Sarbanes (the son of former Sen. Paul Sarbanes), who represents the Annapolis-based 3rd District, is also a potential candidate but would not start out as strong as the others.

And if the last two Senate primaries are instructive, the presence of a few strong candidates will not preclude a dozen other lower-tier contenders from jumping in and capturing valuable votes. There were 16 candidates in 2006 and 10 candidates in 2016.

The first name mentioned by virtually all insiders is Alsobrooks. The 51-year-old former prosecutor is in her second term as the head of Maryland’s second-largest county, a majority-Black, affluent suburb of Washington, D.C.

Alsobrooks, who strongly considered a run for governor in 2022, is term-limited in her current role. She helped play kingmaker in that primary, with her endorsement of Wes Moore helping the now-governor win PG County resoundingly en route to a narrow statewide win. 

Alsobrooks would be a historic candidate. She would be the first Black senator from Maryland, and only the third Black woman ever elected to the Senate. (Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Kamala Harris of California are the two others.) Several Democratic strategists noted with interest that Van Hollen took Alsobrooks as his guest to this year’s State of the Union address.

Alsobrooks’ inner circle is local, but she is taking steps to assemble a team with more federal campaign experience, bringing on Dave Chase (most recently the campaign manager for Tim Ryan’s Senate campaign in Ohio), a national digital fundraising firm, and a finance director with Senate experience. She is also a longtime client of top Democratic pollster Fred Yang.

Trone also considered a statewide bid for governor last cycle but sought re-election instead. An open Senate seat could be attractive for the wealthy wine store magnate. While Trone has taken a low-key approach to Congress, he has used his checkbook to make friends. Since 2016, the Democrat has showered $7.5 million in direct contributions on his fellow Democrats, including max-out donations to hundreds of his colleagues in Congress and candidates running to join them, and five-figure donations to every state Democratic Party in the country.

Raskin has a devoted following in Montgomery County, the wealthy, educated suburb northwest of Washington, DC, and the largest county in the state. He has by far the highest national platform of the bunch from his starring role in the two impeachments of then-President Donald Trump. He also has the clearest progressive bona fides of any candidate, stretching back to his time in the state legislature, and has stockpiled $3.1 million in campaign funds.

But the same factors that make Raskin a deeply compelling candidate also make him less likely to run, say several Maryland insiders. There’s the good: he’s the number-one defender of the Biden administration in Congress, with prime spots on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees that let him go toe-to-toe with Republican Reps. James Comer and Jim Jordan and set him up for powerful chairmanships in 2024 if Democrats retake the House. And there’s the not-so-good: he is currently undergoing chemotherapy for a “serious but treatable cancer,” and is only a few years removed from the traumas of the Jan. 6 attack and the concurrent loss of his son to suicide. 

Raskin would inject national attention into the race, giving both progressives and anti-Trump “Resistance” Democrats a champion. 

Sarbanes, whose father held this Senate seat for three decades, is less well-known than Raskin, doesn’t have the financial resources of Trone, and lacks the political base of Alsobrooks. But he has a famous last name and is well-liked within his district, having carved out a name for himself with environmental groups and voting rights advocates. He was the principal sponsor of the For the People Act, the raft of good-government and election administration policies House Democrats promoted during their majority.

As the only Black candidate and only woman in the top tier, Alsobrooks would begin any primary in a strong position, and several operatives label her the presumptive frontrunner. Her popularity in vote-rich PG County and close political relationships with many of the major players in state politics help as well.

In the past three contested statewide primaries. Black candidates have consistently received around 40 percent of the vote: Kweisi Mfume in 2006 (40.5 percent), Donna Edwards in 2016 (39 percent), and Wes Moore, Rushern Baker, and John King in 2022 (a combined 40 percent). In a head-to-head versus Trone, says one Democrat, that’s a strong opening hand, but in a multi-candidate field “it could make her unbeatable.”

While Alsobrooks and Raskin have dedicated followings, Trone “brings other weapons to the war,” per one Democrat. Already, operatives across the state are abuzz with the rumor that Trone is planning to spend $40 million of his own money on a run. Self-funders often attract those kinds of rumors, but it’s more believable with Trone, who has already spent $46 million on his previous runs. “You name the number, he has the credibility,” says one Democrat.

With the next elections for state legislature and county executive and council not until 2026, many local officeholders can pursue bids for higher office without giving up their current positions. 

2nd District. Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger has represented this Baltimore County district since 2003, and has held elected office since 1986. At 77, he’s the second-oldest member of the delegation. And while rumors about a potential retirement have swirled for a cycle or two, they’ve gotten noticeably louder this year, especially now that he no longer has his powerful perch on the House Intelligence Committee, where he once was ranking member.

If he does head for the exits, there’s a natural successor waiting in the wings: Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski. The 40-year-old “Johnny O.” has been an up-and-comer in Maryland politics since he was elected to the state House at just 26, but passed up a run for governor in 2022. Though Olszewski no longer lives in the 2nd District following the court-ordered redraw last year, the bulk of Baltimore County (roughly 72 percent) still sits in the seat, and local sources say it’s the natural landing spot for him. State House Speaker Adrienne Jones and state Sen. Shelly Hettleman would also be credible candidates.

Joe Biden won the 2nd by 20 points, 59-39 percent, in 2020, so Ruppersberger will be replaced by a Democrat at some point.

3rd District. The 3rd District has produced three of the state’s past four senators, though Sarbanes seems less likely to run for Senate than Trone or Raskin. If he does make a play, local sources suggest Howard County Executive Calvin Ball III as a top contender. Ball defeated a popular Republican incumbent in 2018 and again by a wider margin in a 2022 rematch. Also in the mix are state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, who represents Annapolis and has developed a strong profile on environmental issues similar to Sarbanes, and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, though he lives in the part of the county that sits in the 5th District (which could be an attractive option whenever former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer retires). Both Ball and Pittman are term-limited in their current positions. Biden won the district by more than 25 points in 2020.

6th District. The most likely open seat in the state, should Cardin retire, is also the most competitive district in the state. The 6th includes conservative Western Maryland but also fast-growing Frederick County, which has become more Democratic in recent years (Biden was the first Democrat to carry it in a presidential election since Lyndon Johnson), and a slice of uber-liberal Montgomery County.

If Trone runs for Senate, this seat could see another hotly contested Democratic primary, its third since 2012. In all likelihood the next Democratic nominee will emerge from either Frederick or Montgomery counties, which together cast 77 percent of the total Democratic votes in the district in 2022.

The most obvious choice to succeed Trone, however, doesn’t appear likely to run. Aruna Miller placed second in the 2018 Democratic primary for the district, and had started fundraising for another run in 2022 before she was selected as a running mate for Wes Moore in the gubernatorial race. Some Maryland Democrats are skeptical that the now-lieutenant governor Miller will pivot so quickly to running for Congress in a competitive primary and general election after just beginning her term.

April McClain-Delaney, a deputy assistant secretary of commerce, could run. She’s the wife of former Rep. John Delaney, who represented a previous version of the 6th for six years. She would have access to the substantial personal resources that helped Delaney win three competitive races, but redistricting means she lives well outside the district now (which, while not a legal barrier, could be a political one).

Montgomery County Councilwoman Marilyn Balcombe's district overlaps neatly with the 6th, and the former local Chamber of Commerce leader could run in the business-friendly mold of Delaney and Trone — though she just won election to the council after several attempts. Her predecessor, Craig Rice, and local state Sen. Brian Feldman may also consider it, as might former Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner. 

Biden won the district by 10 points, 54-44 percent, in 2020, so it could be vulnerable to a GOP takeover under the right political conditions. 

8th District. Given the district’s proximity to Washington, D.C., there is no shortage of ambitious politicians who would leap at the opportunity to succeed Raskin if he runs for Senate. The last time this district was open, nine candidates ran, but two dozen others seriously considered it before passing on bids because there were several heavy hitters already running (among them Trone, then-state Sen. Raskin, and former local anchor/Marriott executive Kathleen Matthews). This time, there would be no such frontrunners.

The 8th District is among the most educated and wealthy districts in the country, and its electorate is highly politically informed. Biden won the district by 63 points in 2020, so this seat will stay in Democratic hands. 

With no “next man up,” local Democratic sources point to a dizzying array of potential contenders. Among the candidates most mentioned are Montgomery County Councilman Will Jawando, who ran in the 2016 race; state Sen. William C. Smith, who succeeded Raskin; state Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a longtime state legislator; former county councilmembers Tom Hucker, who recently lost re-election, and Nancy Navarro, who was the running mate of unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Rushern Baker last year; wealthy health care executive David Blair, who could self-fund a campaign but just lost back-to-back county executive primary elections by a combined 109 votes (out of 270,944 total votes); town of Chevy Chase vice mayor Joel Rubin, who also ran in 2016; and even former U.S. Secretary of Labor/2022 gubernatorial primary runner-up Tom Perez, a one time member of the county council.