In the political theater Maryland voters will see over the next nearly three months ahead of the April elections, the main characters in the state's Democratic primary finally know their roles.
Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen, two Democrats who had been looking over their shoulder for months to see if Rep. Elijah E. Cummings was looking to join them in the race for retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's Senate seat, got the news they were hoping for on Tuesday: He won't. After months of consideration, Cummings, the popular Baltimore lawmaker, announced he would seek election to a 12th term in Congress representing the state's 7th District. The move solidifies the primary field for this seat, which is rated Safe Democratic by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call.
“Baltimore City and Baltimore County will be the battlegrounds,” said Doug Thornell, the managing director at SKDKnickerbocker and a former political aide to Van Hollen.
On the same ballot as the Senate and presidential primary, the city will feature a mayoral race with an energized electorate following unrest there last year after the death of Freddie Gray; it's an electorate that would have made Cummings the frontrunner.
Because of that, “his decision not to run benefits both Van Hollen and Edwards,” Thornell said, noting the other two candidates hail from the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
Van Hollen's strength is rooted in his campaign coffers. The seven-term lawmaker who once led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reported having $3.67 million in the bank at the end of 2015, likely solidifying his financial advantage for the final few months of the race. Edwards, whose campaign has struggled to raise its own cash, has not publicly released her fundraising haul for the final quarter of 2015.
In Baltimore, Van Hollen has already had television advertising up touting himself as a progressive on environmental issues, guns and Social Security. The five-week ad campaign in October and November yielded some results, tightening the race in the city where Edwards had a lead in polls. His ads were followed by a $1 million ad campaign for Edwards in December by EMILY's List.
In terms of money, one Democratic operative supporting Edwards said Tuesday, "She’s never going to be able to match him toe-to-toe." Instead, the operative said, "She’s campaigning in a very authentic way and being very creative about how she’s getting earned media," noting the attention she has received in the local press.
When Van Hollen eventually starts to spend his war-chest on advertising and a get-out-the-vote effort, Thornell said, the limits will be tested on how far media attention and spending by outside groups can go.
“We’ve seen the limits of super PACs this cycle,” he said, pointing to ones relied on in the Republican presidential race by candidates such as Scott Walker and Jeb Bush. "Bush was dependent on a super PAC and how far did that get him in Iowa?”
With Cummings out, Baltimore donors, leaders, officials and voters who may have been on the sidelines will be free to get involved. So far, Van Hollen has earned the support of many of the establishment leaders, while Edwards has reached out to a constituency whose support might have been in jeopardy for her with Cummings in the race.
His exit, Thornell said, "benefits her because it doesn’t split some of her support in the African-American community." He said her support from black voters was "fragile, especially in Baltimore." There, Edwards holds a slight lead over Van Hollen.
Edwards, in a statement, praised Cummings as a "fierce advocate for our state," and said, "I am grateful that I can call him my friend and colleague." The Van Hollen campaign did not comment on his announcement.
Cummings' announcement came just a day before candidate filing closed in Maryland, and after months of going back and forth on whether to run.
During an interview Tuesday, Cummings said the decision was truly a tough one, particularly with polling giving him a serious lead over the other candidates while he was not even campaigning for the office.
“I really do appreciate it when I look at the polling," he said in an interview with Roll Call. "There are so many considerations, and it’s not about the position. My criteria is, how can I be most effective in representing my constituents."
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