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Maryland's Political Clout Rests in Elijah Cummings' Senate Decision

Cummings is considering a possible Senate campaign next year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As Democratic Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen carry on with their own campaigns for Maryland's open seat in the Senate, they are looking over their shoulders to see if Rep. Elijah E. Cummings will walk into the room and shake up their primary.  

If Cummings were to enter the contest to replace outgoing Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, he would start with a serious lead which is buoyed, in part, by his large profile, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted earlier this month .  

“I think in this House of Representatives — beyond John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, and Steny Hoyer — there are very few members who have a national profile," said Dave Heller, a Democratic media consultant who has worked for Cummings' campaigns in the past. "I think Elijah’s in that national conversation.”  

Last week, he appeared on NBC's "Meet The Press"  with Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the House Select Committee on Benghazi, just days after the two faced off under the bright national spotlight that shone on their committee when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton testified before it.  

The positive reaction to his aggressive defense of Clinton and his own bragging about the poll having him up 13 points over Edwards and Van Hollen reignited talk about a possible Senate bid. On a conference call to call for disbanding the Benghazi Committee, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said if Cummings ran for and won Mikulski's seat, "we would welcome him in the Senate."  

“I think he has to weigh a position of tremendous influence in the House with becoming a freshman senator," said Heller. “On the other hand, with President [Barack] Obama retiring, he and Sen. Cory Booker would be the two most prominent African-American Democrats in the country, were he to be in the Senate.”  

Beyond whether he could do it, Maryland Democrats said Tuesday that part of what Cummings has to consider is whether it is worth it.  

If he joined the race and the other two candidates stayed in, that would mean that in addition to Mikulski, three of the eight members of the state's congressional delegation — including Van Hollen, who still carries sway from his time in charge of the House Democrats' campaign arm, and Cummings, whose clout eclipses many of his peers' — would be gone and replaced by congressional newbies.  

Cummings has sent mixed messages about his plans. About a month ago, Cummings said he was planning to announce his decision on a Senate campaign in “maybe less than two weeks” during a three-stop tour of his district on the same day the only candidate challenging him dropped his campaign. That time has come and gone, and the tour never happened. Then, he said he wanted to just get past the Benghazi hearings.  

“He has taken the job of member of Congress so seriously this past year, it's hard to know when he'd have time to think about his political future," said Martha McKenna, a Baltimore-based Democratic consultant and former political director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.  

When asked about the timeline of a possible campaign announcement, a spokesman for Cummings said Tuesday, "Please stay tuned."  

Cummings' entrance into the race would seriously change the dynamics  in the Democratic contest for the seat, which is rated Safe Democrat by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call.  

On the surface, Heller said, “When you have two African-Americans and one white man, that would tend to advantage the white guy, and when you have two D.C. people against a Baltimore person, that would advantage the Baltimore person."  

But, he said the dynamics at play are more nuanced than that. Baltimore represents roughly half the state's voting population, and its half will likely be more energized next year with the city's mayoral election on the same day as the Senate primary.  

Both Van Hollen and Edwards will have to spend money to define themselves to Baltimore voters. Already, Van Hollen is up on television there with a minute-long commercial  on cable he launched last week pushing back on some of the messaging on key progressive issues that has been used against him by Edwards.  

“If you live in Baltimore and are a registered Democrat, you’re probably an Elijah Cummings voter. It would take an awful lot of television, radio, mail and lying to take those people away from Elijah Cummings,” Heller said.  

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