Old Bay melee: Maryland Dems circle as Cardin weighs reelection

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Sen. Ben Cardin is still assessing whether to run for another six-year term in 2024. In the meantime, ambitious fellow Democrats are preparing campaigns that can strike ASAP if the genial Marylander retires.

At least three politicians are looking at potential runs to succeed the 79-year-old Cardin. Angela Alsobrooks, the Prince George’s County executive, is staffing up for a potential bid, according to four people familiar with her planning. And two House Democrats with very different profiles could take the leap: Rep. Jamie Raskin, a progressive leader on the Jan. 6 investigation, and moderate Rep. David Trone, a wealthy wine magnate who represents Western Maryland.

None would challenge Cardin — but Democrats think his retirement is a real possibility. And from California to Maryland to Delaware, the pent-up ambition of younger Democrats is clashing awkwardly with the slow decision-making processes of veteran senators. As announcement time looms and incumbent fundraising slows to a trickle, a crop of Senate hopefuls is beginning to hire up and build out statewide campaign teams.

In an interview, Cardin made clear he’s not calling it quits yet. He cracked about those raising money with the Senate in mind: “If they raise money now, they can turn it over to me, can’t they?”

“I guess they're ahead of themselves,” Cardin said, reiterating his end of March timeline. “I’m not concerned about what other people might be doing.”

Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are getting most of the attention in the latest edition of the chamber’s biennial retirement watch. Yet blue states like Maryland can earn even more scrutiny than battlegrounds within the Democratic Party, because a primary win in an open race can turn into a long and cushy Senate tenure. And Cardin is hardly the only one under pressure.

Two members of the California House delegation are launching Senate bids without bothering to wait for a retirement announcement from 89-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein, with a third on the way. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) is open to succeeding Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) if he decides to retire. And though Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) is running for a third term, everyone’s quietly keeping an eye on Vacationland — just in case.

That jockeying is drawing particular attention in Maryland — because Cardin might actually run again.

“There's a lot of people talking about it,” said Rep. Glenn Ivey, a freshman Democrat who represents part of Prince George’s County. “You got a deep bench in Maryland, too. So there's a lot of people who could, I think, be strong candidates.”

First elected to Congress in 1986, Cardin has drawn notice after raising less than $30,000 over the last three months and ending December with just over $1 million in the bank. That has many Maryland politicos betting that his deep-blue seat will open up.

"He's a mentor to me. And I've been here a long time," quipped Democratic Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger about Cardin, adding that he hoped the senator wouldn't retire.

An early frontrunner could be the 51-year-old Alsobrooks, the first woman ever to serve as executive of her native Prince George's County and the youngest person ever to be elected as state's attorney there.

Alsobrooks is a proven fundraiser who considered running for governor in 2022 but chose instead to seek reelection to her county post. Asked about a Senate run in a WJLA interview that aired Thursday, Alsobrooks said she would consider it if the seat was open: "It would be an amazing opportunity to represent the state."

She has taken perhaps the most concrete steps toward a run. Dave Chase, who managed former Rep. Tim Ryan’s 2022 Ohio Senate campaign, has joined Alsobrooks’ political operation, which has also begun engaging with consultants.

Trone is having conversations with potential senior staff hires who could help him mount a statewide campaign, according to three sources familiar with his preparations.

The owner of the Total Wine & More empire, Trone would bring nearly unlimited cash to any race, after investing over $13 million of his largesse in a failed 2016 House bid. Raskin ultimately won that seat and Trone ran and won a different district in 2018, which he has held since.

Both Trone and Alsobrooks declined to comment through spokespeople.

Raskin, a constitutional law scholar, gained national prominence for his lead role in former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment. But he is also currently battling lymphoma and is undergoing chemotherapy treatments. In an interview with POLITICO, he said he would not rule out a Senate run but that his focus is on his health.

"When people call me, I tell them, 'Thank you,'" Raskin said. "But I just got to get through this. And then I'll be able to think about the future."

He may decline the statewide run for another reason: His recent ascension as the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.

The current shadow field lacks geographic diversity. All three Democrats are from the D.C.-area — and some will want a Charm City Democrat to succeed Cardin, who speaks with a notable Baltimore accent. Johnny Olszewski Jr., the Baltimore County executive, has been floated for a Senate bid but is seen as more likely to eventually replace Ruppersberger in the House, should he retire.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) advised other Democrats to buzz off while Cardin decides: “Everyone should give him room.”

One state away on I-95, Carper says he’s doing everything he needs to win reelection. He raised about $180,000 in the final quarter of 2022, significantly more than Cardin, Feinstein or King. A fourth-term senator, Carper has served in politics since the 1970s. And he’s not super eager to start his next campaign — or talk about it.

“Campaigns are too long and too expensive,” Carper said. “I shorten the campaigns as much as I can. So, I’m doing what I need to do to be able to run. That’s all I’m going to say.”

Carper, 76, faced a primary challenge in 2018, winning the nominating contest with 64 percent of the vote. His state is much smaller than Maryland, and thus there are fewer people jockeying to succeed him. But there are obvious contenders: Democratic Gov. John Carney and Blunt Rochester, who in 2016 became the first woman to represent Delaware in Congress.

“If the seat was open, I would definitely consider it,” Blunt Rochester said. She said she was focused on serving Delaware in the House but would “be prepared for whatever comes.”

Maine, meanwhile, has small benches for both parties. And King’s $56,000 in fundraising has raised eyebrows. But the 78-year-old senator is batting away any suggestion he might not run.

“I could be struck by lightning. But I am running,” King said of those who say his slow fundraising points to a possible retirement. “I’m doing all the mechanical things. It is two years away. Olympia Snowe once said, ‘there are only two ways to run: Scared and unopposed.’”

Snowe, of course, blindsided the GOP with her retirement in 2012 and opened the door for King’s election.

And while shadow races often form in states where an aging senator seems ripe for retirement, California has been the most active.

Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter launched bids for Feinstein's seat, which she has held since 1992. The incumbent has not said whether or not she will step down at the end of her term. A third colleague, Rep. Barbara Lee, is preparing to join the field.

“It is definitely awkward, but I believe that people are predicting what could happen in the future,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.).

It’s all a little much for Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who runs Democrats’ campaign arm. Given that even primary elections are more than a year away, he said: “Folks should be respectful to the person who is in office.”