Sabato's Crystal Ball

Maryland Senate: Democrats Retain a Clear Edge

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball March 5th, 2015

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The retirement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) has created a second open seat among the 10 the Democrats are defending this cycle. The other open seat is in California, where Sen. Barbara Boxer is retiring.

While Boxer (74) and Mikulski (78) are retirement-aged, that they decided to leave now is perhaps a testament to the loss of clout from moving from the majority to the minority. It’s impossible to know, but if the Democrats had held the majority in 2014, both senators might have been less likely to retire.

Retirements almost invariably make a seat more vulnerable to takeover by the other party, but these departures are well-timed for Democrats because both states are heavily Democratic and 2016 will feature presidential-level turnout. Had both senators hung around for another term, the seats probably would have come open in 2022, a midterm year where the overall political environment at this point is unknowable. So this is as good a time as any from a Democratic perspective to fill these seats with new blood. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a spate of Republican House retirements last cycle in competitive seats. The timing of these vacancies in a midterm year that appeared to be tilting to the Republicans far in advance worked out well for the GOP. Republicans lost only one open House seat in 2014, CA-31, which was the most Democratic seat they held going into the election.

California and Maryland are in some ways similar states politically. They have both been much more Democratic than the nation as a whole over the past four presidential elections. Over that timeframe, California has given an average of 57.2% of the vote to the Democratic presidential candidate, while Maryland, at 59.1%, has been even more Democratic. Both states’ Democratic vote over the past four cycles is much higher than the 50.1% average the Democratic nominee has won nationwide in that same time period. So even if the Democrats lose the presidential election in 2016, it’s reasonable to assume that these states will not be truly competitive.

A Republican has not won a Senate election in Maryland since 1980 or in California since 1988. Both states also have very diverse presidential electorates: The national electorate as a whole was 72% white in 2012 according to exit polls, while California was just 55% white and Maryland was 59% white. Mitt Romney won whites in both states but was swamped by the large minority electorates (blacks are the largest minority in Maryland, while Hispanics are the largest minority in California).

Despite their federal Democratic lean, both states have been open in recent history to voting for Republican governors: the Golden State elected Arnold Schwarzenegger twice last decade, and Maryland elected Bob Ehrlich in 2002 and Larry Hogan last fall. Like most states, California and Maryland conduct their gubernatorial elections in midterm years, so the electorates are smaller and demographically more Republican.

Of course, the two states situated on opposite coasts are quite different in many respects, too, not the least of which is that California has more than six times the population as Maryland.

We noted a couple weeks ago that Democrats have seemingly navigated a primary minefield in California, where regardless of party all candidates run in the same primary, which will occasionally lead to two candidates of the same party advancing to the general election. Democratic fears of being shut out of the general election thanks to a giant Democratic field splitting the primary vote have subsided thanks to an early show of strength from state Attorney General Kamala Harris. Since we last discussed the race, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), who was Harris’ most obvious intraparty rival, has passed on the contest. It’s possible that a Southern California U.S. House member or two might enter the race to carry the region’s flag against the Bay Area’s Harris, though.

After Boxer’s retirement, we started that race at Safe Democratic, a rating that has been justified by how the field has turned out: No top-tier Republicans are running, and Harris is the only Democrat of note.

We’re going to do the same thing with Maryland: Despite it being an open seat now, Maryland’s Senate race remains Safe Democratic.

The dynamics in Maryland are less complicated than California. The Free State has a traditional primary system, so there will presumably be one, but only one, Democrat and Republican in the general election. This could lead to a bigger field of candidates because Democrats won’t be worried about spoiling the party’s chances in the general election.

One major potential candidate has already bowed out — former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who is apparently pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination instead — but many others remain.

Of the seven Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation, only House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (MD-5) seems like he will obviously elect to remain in the House. At 77 on Election Day, he would be quite old for a freshman senator, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could become House speaker before his time in Washington is through.

One can come up with reasons for any of the others to run, though:

— Rep. Chris Van Hollen (MD-8) announced Wednesday that he’s running, and his early entry might scare off some other potential contenders. A leader in the House, Van Hollen is close to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Although Pelosi holds a San Francisco-based seat, she is from Baltimore, where her father and brother served as mayor. Perhaps she’ll take some extra interest in this race.

— Rep. Donna Edwards (MD-4) took on the state’s party establishment in 2008 by defeating an incumbent in a primary, and she could garner support from EMILY’s List, the group that backs pro-choice Democratic women. If elected she would be only the second black, female senator, joining former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL).

— Rep. John Delaney (MD-6) is personally wealthy and represents a seat that is less Democratic than the state as a whole (he almost lost in 2014). He considered a run for governor in 2014 and has already signaled interest in the Senate race. Some history: Edwards backed Delaney in a 2012 primary against a more establishment-oriented candidate.

— Rep. John Sarbanes (MD-3) would be a legacy candidate: His father, Paul, represented the state in the Senate for 30 years before opting not to run for reelection in 2006.

— Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (MD-2), who like Delaney considered a run for governor in 2014, is also potentially interested.

— Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD-7) is another black contender, although he has a lot of seniority in the House and may be less likely to jump in.

Beyond the House delegation, several other Democrats are potentially interested, such as Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who lost the gubernatorial race last year; former Attorney General Doug Gansler and former state Delegate Heather Mizeur, who both lost in the gubernatorial primary to Brown last year; and many others.

Some of these Democrats were considering a run against Gov. Hogan in 2018. Another possibility is the state’s other Senate seat, held by two-termer Ben Cardin (D). Cardin’s seat is up in 2018, and he will be 75 by the time Election Day 2018 comes. Perhaps he elects to retire, which would open up yet another opportunity for this deep bench of Democrats.

There are lots of potential Republicans, too. Former Gov. Ehrlich, who is currently pursuing a presidential bid, is a possibility. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who now lives in Florida but who made his name at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is running for president, and his history of insensitive comments about gays would play poorly in a liberal state like Maryland. Rep. Andy Harris (MD-1) is the state’s lone congressional Republican, but he also sounds unlikely to run. Former Secret Service agent Dan Bongino, who was the 2012 Senate nominee and nearly beat Delaney in 2014, is another possibility. Daily Kos Elections mentions several others.

The bottom line is this: Maryland is so Democratic at the federal level that it would take a perfect storm to make the race competitive for Republicans. That would involve a divisive Democratic primary that results in a poor nominee, and a strong GOP nominee who is moderate enough to win a significant amount of crossover support. Is it possible that such a scenario will develop? Sure. But it’s not anywhere close to likely, and as we wait for further developments, we think the proper rating remains Safe Democratic.