Race for Mikulski’s Senate Seat Could Spark Democratic Divide
Policy + Politics

Race for Mikulski’s Senate Seat Could Spark Democratic Divide

Veteran Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski’s decision to retire next year already has touched off a political chain reaction that could deepen fissures within the Democratic Party.

Last Friday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) warmly endorsed Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a seven-term House member from suburban Maryland and the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, to succeed Mikulski, the longest serving woman in the Senate.

Related: Mikulski’s Retirement Sets Off Scramble for Her Seat

"Not only would Chris Van Hollen be the best and most effective person for the job, I have no doubt that he is in the best and strongest position to make sure that this Senate seat remains in Democratic hands in a state that just elected a Republican governor," Reid said in a statement.

Van Hollen is far from a shoe-in for the seat, which is being eyed by a cluster of other prominent Democrats and Republicans.  Some progressive Democrats more in line with the views of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are upset that Reid jumped the gun before other Democratic aspirants for the job showed their hands.

Some are questioning whether the Senate needs another white male within its ranks, like Van Hollen or needs another woman or minority, according to media reports.  Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) also announced earlier this year that she will not seek another term, leaving only nine Democratic women in the upper chamber.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), an up- and-coming African-American politician, plans to announce her candidacy for Mikulski’s seat on Tuesday, according to The Washington Post. In 2008, Edwards ousted another black Democrat, former Rep. Albert Wynn, to win her first term in the House – thanks in part to strong backing from liberal or progressive Democratic groups.

Edwards strongly signaled last week that she might enter the Senate race, telling CQ Roll Call, “We are on the verge of not having any representation of women in our state in the Senate, and I think that’s pretty compelling, and it’s something that certainly makes me think about it even more.” She added that she would have no qualms about challenging a House Democratic colleague for the nomination in 2016.

Related: Democratic Representative Donna Edwards to seek Maryland U.S. Senate seat: Washington Post  

Van Hollen, 56, is a highly regarded and thoughtful lawmaker who has devoted much of his energy promoting the Democrats’ economic and budget policies. For years, there has been speculation that he was being groomed to be part of the next generation of Democratic leaders in the House. But with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 74, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, 75, giving no indication they plan to step aside any time in the foreseeable future, Van Hollen has turned his sights on the Senate.

Besides the early endorsement from Reid, Van Hollen reportedly had $1.7 million in cash on hand at the end of 2014 that he could shift to a Senate race, compared to just $30,000 in Edwards’s campaign account.

Van Hollen was first elected to the House in 2002 after 17 years in the Maryland state legislature. He served as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, his party’s main campaign arm, during the 2008 and 2010 campaign cycles.

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Other challengers are lining up as well. Indeed, six of the seven Democratic House members have mentioned an interest in the race, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, another member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee; Rep. John Sarbanes, the son of a highly popular former senator; and Rep. John Delaney, a wealthy businessman who could probably bankroll a significant portion of his campaign.

Former Democratic Maryland governor Martin O’Malley said recently he has no interest in going after Mikulski’s seat. O’Malley has been exploring a possible bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. But he likely would not enter that race unless Clinton chooses not to seek the nomination, which for now seems an unlikely scenario -- even with the current controversy over Clinton’s use of a private email server for official business while she was secretary of state.

Progressive groups including the Howard Dean organization Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have been encouraging Edwards to jump into the race.  Some liberal Democrats are skeptical about Van Hollen, who gave early support to the failed Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan that critics warned would result in cuts to Social Security and other entitlement programs, according to Politico.

On the other hand, Edwards skipped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress last week and is coming under scrutiny by Jewish leaders in the D.C. suburbs for past votes, according to the report

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