Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s (D) decision to retire when her term ends in 2017 ignited a battle yesterday among Old Line State Democrats who will vie to succeed her in office — but Mikulski’s departure could also cause a ripple effect in other Capitol Hill and national political power struggles.
While the most public fight is expected to occur among Democrats seeking their party’s Senate nomination next year — 18 candidates were on the primary ballot when Sen. Ben Cardin (D) won the nod in 2006, the last time an open-seat race occurred — Mikulski’s absence could also trigger a shuffling of Democratic committee assignments in the Senate, and in the House could perhaps even influence the next race for speaker.
That latter scenario could depend on who among the dozen or so names circulating as potential successors to Mikulski opts into the race.
One potential Senate contender is Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D), a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman and ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee. A protégé of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Van Hollen is viewed by many as a strong contender for speaker should Democrats retake control of the House and Pelosi opt to retire.
Van Hollen’s exit from the House would erase that potential line of succession, easing the way for other would-be future leaders like Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California, or even a bid for the top job from Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — who, like Pelosi, is in his mid-70s.
That potential future could sway Van Hollen to remain in the House and skip out on the Senate contest, noted David Heller, president of Main Street Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based media firm with several clients in Maryland.
"There’s a very real chance that he decides to do that. … It’s an avenue that’s available to so few people, and it’s certainly available to him," Heller said.
But an open Senate seat in Maryland is a rarity — all but guaranteeing a long Senate career for the Democratic nominee — and Van Hollen opted out of the last race in 2006, when then-Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) retired. Van Hollen ran for re-election to the House seat he first won in 2002 instead.
In addition, Van Hollen could claim a significant cash advantage if he decides to seek the Democratic nomination in 2016. He reported $1.7 million in his campaign account at the end of last year, nearly double that of his next closest potential competitor.
In an email to supporters yesterday, Van Hollen acknowledged that he is being urged to run for Senate and added, "I will be in touch with you soon about my future plans."
In the wake of Mikulski’s retirement announcement, Rep. John Delaney (D) also publicly disclosed his interest in the race, declaring on Twitter that he will "explore" the possibility of running. He is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, so he could self-fund a substantial portion of any statewide run.
But most political observers believe each of Maryland’s House eight lawmakers — with the exception of Hoyer — is likely to consider his or her options.
In addition to Van Hollen and Delaney and the lone Republican congressman, Andy Harris, that includes Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings, Dutch Ruppersberger, Donna Edwards and John Sarbanes, who is the former senator’s son.
Both Cummings and Sarbanes also report sizable campaign stashes of $890,000 and $750,000, respectively.
Heller, who has worked for Cummings, said he expects the 11-term lawmaker will mull over a potential bid.
"Like everybody else, he did not see this day coming and as a result has not really given it a moment’s thought," Heller said. "He is somebody who is tremendously popular in the entire Baltimore media market and has connections across the entire state."
But it remains to be seen whether a crowded Democratic primary could dissuade some House lawmakers from giving up otherwise safe seats.
In an open Georgia Senate race in 2014, a trio of House Republicans made failed bids for the GOP nomination in a similarly large primary.
"I think that every Maryland Democrat is looking to see if this is their best opportunity," said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. "They already know they’re going to have to give up their seat, and with that comes the risk of not winning."
He added: "They also have to balance the prospect of losing a safe congressional seat with the prospect of waiting another 20 years for a shot at the Senate."
Other potential contenders include failed 2014 gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur (D), Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who is already exploring a longshot Democratic presidential primary bid.
While some Maryland political observers questioned whether O’Malley would be willing to forgo his presidential aspirations, St. Mary’s College of Maryland political science professor Todd Eberly suggested the Senate race could give O’Malley an alternative to an uphill battle against presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton.
"The people who would invest in him for a Senate run would likely see it as an investment in the future," Eberly said, noting that the 52-year-old former state executive could opt to run for president in 2020 or 2024. "It is a bit of a long-shot race for him to get the Democratic nod, but then the nod for the Senate would be far more likely."
O’Malley was a young operative on Mikulski’s first Senate race in 1986, and his mother is a longtime receptionist in the senator’s Capitol Hill office. Like Mikulski, he once served on the Baltimore City Council.
Republicans, buoyed by their upset victory in Maryland’s gubernatorial contest last fall, also vowed to compete for Mikulski’s seat, but Eberly said such promises are likely to go unfulfilled. The GOP has not won a Senate seat in Maryland since 1980.
"If it was a Senate race that occurred in a midterm, then yes, I’d argue that they absolutely have a shot. But this is going to be a Senate race that takes place in a presidential election year," Eberly said, noting that Democrats enjoy a strong advantage in presidential cycles. "I don’t see how Republicans could overcome it."
Eberly pointed to Delaney’s western Maryland 6th District seat as an example, noting that the district tends to split nearly 50-50 in midterm cycles, but that Democrats dominate the seat by double digits in the presidential years.
"That is essentially a 10-point difference from one election to the next," Eberly said. "It’s a pretty good gauge for how Maryland itself differs in presidential versus non-presidential years."
Regardless of how many Democrats ultimately compete in the primary, Eberly predicted: "The Democrats have a very deep bench of possible candidates to succeed Mikulski. Odds are they’ll end up with a very good candidate."
Vacancy in top Approps slot
Mikulski’s departure also creates a vacancy at the Senate Appropriations Committee, where she serves as the ranking Democrat.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) is technically the most senior member of the panel, but he has previously passed on the opportunity to take up the top Democratic spot, opting instead to serve as the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Asked yesterday about his future on the Appropriations panel, Leahy said: "I am so proud of Barbara Mikulski." Mikulski became the first woman to chair the panel, taking the gavel after Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) died in late 2012.
Similarly, Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who serves as the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, declined yesterday to discuss whether she would seek the top Democratic spot on the Appropriations panel.
"I am focused on what I’m doing right now," she told E&E Daily.
Legacy of fighting for the bay
While Mikulski is best known for her trailblazing on women’s issues and workers’ rights, she also leaves a sizable legacy of fighting to protect the Chesapeake Bay.
The daughter of an East Baltimore grocer, Mikulski has seen the estuary as not just an ecological gem, but a driver of the region’s blue-collar economy, providing jobs for watermen and shellfish for restaurants, and drawing tourists to the state.
Although she is not fond of boats, she has been very fond of the oystermen who power out into the bay’s chilly waters from October through March and had directed millions of dollars to research and recovery efforts for the region’s ailing oyster fishery.
Mikulski also played a crucial role in securing federal funding to purchase land near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, referred to it as "the Everglades of the North," where a developer was planning a conference resort and thousands of homes.
"It is hard to imagine how the Chesapeake Bay will survive without Sen. Mikulski," Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a statement. "Just as her beloved oyster is a keystone species in the Bay’s ecology, Sen. Mikulski has been a political cornerstone of support for saving the Bay."
Mikulski’s retirement comes as a blow to Chesapeake Bay restoration advocates, who in recent years have benefited from a powerhouse team she formed with Cardin, her Maryland Senate colleague.
Until this session, Cardin chaired the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife, a perch from which he would identify and develop programs while Mikulski would make sure that funding followed.
Their collaboration showed up in the rising budget for U.S. EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program, which provides technical assistance and grants to local communities, the farm bill’s conservation programs, and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund that helps communities finance sewer upgrades. Advocates say those funding programs are increasingly important as the requirements of a landmark effort to clean up the estuary’s 64,000-square-mile watershed ratchet up.
Moreover, in her tenure atop the Senate Appropriations panel, Mikulski was a reliable defender of the Obama administration’s environmental agenda.
Perhaps her greatest test in that role came last December, as she worked with House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and both parties’ leadership to hash out the so-called CRomnibus deal funding all agencies but the Department of Homeland Security through the end of fiscal 2015. Republicans pushed for an array of policy riders, particularly targeting the president’s Climate Action Plan and a proposal to increase the number of streams and wetlands that receive automatic protection under the Clean Water Act.
Environmentalists credit her for largely holding the line (E&E Daily, Dec. 10, 2014).
"She had to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to fight off some really serious attacks," said Josh Saks, legislative director for the National Wildlife Federation. "The CRomnibus bill, there was so much on the table — block the Clean Power Plan, block the water rule — and she was one of the very few people in that room, and at the end of the day, all of those key priorities survived."
Saks said that while Mikulski’s will be big shoes to fill, looking at the list of potential successors, he is confident that they will be filled.
Reporter Manuel Quiñones contributed.