CHESAPEAKE BEACH, Md. — When Barbara A. Mikulski announced her retirement last month, she instructed fellow Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin to brace himself.
"She said it would take about 10 minutes before things would get really interesting in Maryland," Cardin recounted at a March 12 event on the Chesapeake Bay. "It took about 30 seconds until things got very interesting." In the 17 days since the Democratic senator announced she would not seek another term, two House members have already launched bids for her seat and only one Democrat in the delegation has indicated he has no interest in the race.
That made the dinner hosted by the Calvert County Democrats last week in Chesapeake Beach an intriguing affair. Among the 200 people to file through the buffet line at the Rod 'N’ Reel Restaurant were labor leaders, a former governor, the longtime state Senate president and several potential candidates for Mikulski's seat.
The event provided an early glimpse of what the Senate primary will look like — the delicate balance of attacking opponents who double as colleagues and friends, and the careful dance of those few Democrats who will choose to stay on the sidelines.
Reps. Donna Edwards, who announced her candidacy last week, and John Delaney, who is considering a bid, sat together at the head table and chatted through the evening. Seated 10 feet away, on the other side of the lectern, was former state Del. Heather Mizeur, the progressive favorite in the gubernatorial primary last year and a potential Senate candidate. The keynote speaker was Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, who had not squelched talk of his potential candidacy until an interview with CQ Roll Call that night.
Not present was Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who announced his Senate campaign a week earlier, and Reps. John Sarbanes, Elijah E. Cummings and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who all have said they are looking at the race.
Because the dinner was in his district, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, the sole Democrat who has ruled out a Senate campaign, was seated in the position of honor directly next to the lectern.
"I'm concerned about losing so many of them, particularly if a lot of them run against each other and we lose their service to the Congress," Hoyer told CQ Roll Call just before departing. "That would be a loss for the state. But we’ll see what happens."
Edwards' remarks had all the makings of a campaign stump speech. The congresswoman, who represents a neighboring district, was not originally on the program of speakers and her attendance seemed tied to her two-day-old Senate campaign.
"We have a wonderful delegation, and we’re gonna do a little rough and tumble over the election season," Edwards said in her speech. "And that’s OK, because we know at the end of the day, when we come back as Democrats we come back on the same team because we share values."
She went on to recount her endorsement of Cardin’s primary opponent in the 2006 open-seat Senate race, and said he nevertheless reached out the day after he won. Edwards said she told him those overtures were unnecessary, because the primary was over and “we’re on the same team as Democrats.”
But speaking to CQ Roll Call after the speech, Edwards made clear the primary will offer a contrast between the candidates.
"We’re a very cohesive delegation and we are friends and friendly, but elections really are about choices," she said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has already decided to back Van Hollen, releasing a statement on March 6 calling him "the best and most effective person for the job." Van Hollen has also rolled out a series of endorsements from legislators in his district.
So when Edwards was asked whether she would endorse in the primary for her House seat, her response sounded like a veiled shot at her opponent. "All this business of endorsements and all of that stuff I don’t think really matter to voters," she said.
Other interested parties are expected to stay out of the fray, as Democrats are heavily favored to hold the seat no matter the nominee. That includes Cardin, who said last week he will remain "neutral," Hoyer, who said he would not get involved, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee .
“We have a lot of really good people that are going to be running for office and people say, ‘Well these competitive primaries, are they good for the Democrats?’" Cardin said in his speech. "I think they are, but we’ve got to come together after the primaries and make sure that we hold onto the Senate seat."
The last Maryland senator who was not a member of the House at the time of his or her election was Sen. Joseph Tydings, a former state delegate and U.S. attorney when he was elected in 1964. But there are several potential candidates outside of the congressional delegation, including Mizeur, former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
While two members of Congress are already in the race, Delaney, whose district includes the entire Maryland panhandle, said he was conducting the necessary research to help him decide.
"To do serious analytical work and polling on this takes two or three weeks, so whoever has announced at this point has not done any of that stuff because it’s only been 10 days, for example," Delaney said at the event last week. "So I just don’t think it’s prudent to make a decision without doing a certain amount of work."
Delaney said it was "unfortunate" that friendly colleagues will have to compete against each other, but when asked if the existing camaraderie might lower the intensity of the race, he changed the subject.
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