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How Elijah Cummings Could Shake Up Maryland's Senate Race

With his Baltimore activism and roots, Cummings would be a formidable force in the Maryland primary. (File Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Updated: 5:50 p.m. | After months of flirting with the notion of running for Maryland's open Senate seat, it seems that Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings might be ready to take it for a first date.  

Next month, according to The Washington Post and confirmed to CQ Roll Call by a Cummings aide, the 10-term representative from Baltimore will hold a fundraiser at Nationals Stadium in Washington when his hometown Orioles are in town.  

Admittedly, a fundraiser itself isn't all that interesting. What is noteworthy here is its organizer: Ashley Martens. She is a seasoned Democratic fundraiser who has raised money for Senate candidates before – from Patrick J. Leahy to Mark Warner.  

Cummings' decision to hire her shows at least an interest in strengthening his otherwise modest fundraising operation, and, at most, could be a signal that his interest in a statewide run might be growing.  

If he were to enter the race, he would join two other Democrats – Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen – who began running earlier this year in a very competitive primary that will likely decide who replaces Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski when she retires at the end of her term.  

Here are some of the dynamics in play in what would be one of the most-watched primaries of 2016:  

First, a caveat -- Team Cummings says there's nothing to see here:  Mike Christianson, a spokesman for Cummings’ campaign, downplayed Martens' hire as "routine."  

“Congressman Cummings appreciates the interest in his routine fundraising decisions as a Democratic leader,” Christianson said. “Although he continues to evaluate how he can best serve the people of Maryland in 2016 and the future, his number one priority in August 2015 is to continue doing all that he can to help Baltimore move forward.”  

Cummings could gain an early lead simply because of geography:  Baltimore is used to being home to Maryland's senators.  Both Mikulski and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin claim it as their home. For voters there, having Baltimore his hometown would be an advantage.  

“It’s a powerful combination of demographics and geography," said Martha McKenna, a Baltimore-based Democratic consultant, referring to Cummings' strength. "One of the reasons I would hope that he would look seriously at running is because he is in a unique position to provide leadership to the Baltimore region."  

Nearly half of the Free State's Democratic primary voters reside in the Baltimore media market. And, when voters head to the polls next spring, Baltimore could experience higher turnout because of a competitive mayoral race on the same ballot, McKenna added.  

“Without a Baltimore-based candidate, there’s an opportunity for both Van Hollen and Edwards to make a name for themselves in the region," she said.  

Cummings' entrance would make it a main event:  A three-way primary between Cummings, Edwards and Van Hollen would be something of a proxy battle between three Democratic leaders who represent three different wings in the party.  

“It'd be the Democratic primary to watch,” said Doug Thornell, a former Van Hollen operative who is now a partner at SKDKnickerbocker in Washington. “Three heavy hitters in Maryland going at it would be a great fight.”  

Consider this:

  • Cummings, the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is a leader in the civil rights wing of the party -- a strength epitomized by his leadership in Baltimore during the riots there earlier this year.
  • Edwards, a progressive fighter who represents the liberal wing of the party, has tapped into its support from groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Emily's List.
  • And Van Hollen, the ranking member on the House Committee on the Budget who was the former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, serves as the establishment favorite, tapping into a base of money and endorsements that Edwards has yet to find.

Despite the strength that Cummings' stature might bring to the race, it could also be the thing that could ultimately keep him out of it. Would he rather be the Democrats' champion against a Republican like former Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, or that panel's current leader, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, or might he want a larger platform in the Senate to take on the issues raised by the "Black Lives Matter" movement.  

"He may be trying to decide whether he can do more for Baltimore and communities like it across the country if he were to be in the U.S. Senate,” McKenna said.  

Cummings polls better than the other candidates:  According to a poll released last week by the Edwards campaign, both she and Van Hollen have the same favorability rating, about 45 percent. Cummings, meanwhile, would start a race with 65 percent popularity and with only 9 percent of voters giving him an unpopular rating.  

Why did they even release his popularity numbers? Benajmin Gerdes, a Edwards spokesman, said, "Rep. Cummings is admired in Maryland, and it'd be wrong not to include his numbers."  

But, despite the intrigue about a potential Cummings candidacy, Gerdes said they did not poll a three-way matchup.  

To win, Cummings would have to up his fundraising game:  Alas, to the impetus for this story and others that were written last week.  

At the halfway point this year, Van Hollen reported nearly $3.8 million on hand ahead of the April primary. Edwards, on the other hand, reported just shy of $420,000 in the bank. She is relying heavily on support from outside groups.  

“Ultimately, being able to raise the money to compete statewide will be one of the more important things Cummings is going to have to show," said Thornell, a Maryland native. "He doesn’t need to out-raise Chris, but probably needs to out-raise Donna and have more than she does."  

Last quarter, Cummings raised $235,000 – a sign to some that he was not doing what one might do if they were considering a statewide run in a place where media is as expensive as it is in Maryland. But, he ended the quarter with $918,000 in the bank – a decent start for a statewide bid.  

The Maryland Senate race is rated Safe Democrat by the Rothenburg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.  

Correction Aug. 24, 5:54 p.m. An earlier version of this story misidentified the committee leadership position of Rep. Darrell Issa.  

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