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Jostling For A Seat

Washington-area political junkies may reside at the epicenter of the political universe, but opportunities to watch interesting and trulycompetitive Senate and House races in our own backyard have been few and far between.

The 1994 Senate race in Virginia between Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb and Republican Oliver North was great political theater, as was Robb's losing effort to fend off George Allen six years later. Maryland's 8th Congressional District hosted a hot Democratic primary and general election in 2002, when Democrat Chris Van Hollen defeated Mark Shriver in the primary and then unseated eight-term GOP incumbent Connie Morella. Great races all, but they were hardly enough to sate the appetites of true campaign aficionados.

Now, thanks largely to the decision of five-term Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., to retire, 2006 might be a banner year for competitive federal races in this region.

Maryland is a solidly blue state. It gave Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry 56 percent of its vote in 2004. The state hasn't had an open-seat Senate race since 1986, when Charles Mathias, the last Republican to represent Maryland in the Senate, retired and then-Rep. Barbara Mikulski trounced Reagan White House aide Linda Chavez.

So, there's no shortage of Free State Democrats with Senate aspirations. Former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, past president of the NAACP, has announced he'll run, while Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger (MD-2) and Van Hollen (MD-8) have established exploratory committees. Reps. Elijah Cummings (MD-7) and Ben Cardin (MD-3) are also contemplating the race, as is Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey. Every House member who runs will open up a congressional seat, and although all these districts are reliably Democratic, voters should at least see competitive primaries next year.

Even if the Democratic primary comes down to Mfume, Ruppersberger, and Van Hollen, they would create a contest with complicated dynamics.

The first is racial. Mfume, Cummings, and Ivey are black, and African-Americans make up 28 percent of the state's population. If more than one black candidate is in the race for the Democratic nomination, that will split the African-American vote.

The next dynamic is geographic. Mfume's old congressional district was centered in Baltimore. Cummings represents a large part of that city. Ruppersberger, a former county executive of Baltimore County, and Cardin represent the Baltimore suburbs. If at least two Baltimore-oriented candidates are in the race, that might help Van Hollen, who represents Montgomery County, or Ivey, whose base is in Prince George's County, both in the Washington suburbs.

The final dynamic is old Maryland versus new Maryland. Baltimore used to be the state's demographic and political hub, but growth in the suburbs along the Washington-Baltimore corridor has given the state a more suburban feel. Cummings, whose district includes parts of Baltimore and the fast-growing Howard County suburbs, and Cardin, whose district includes Anne Arundel County, are the only potential candidates who straddle both worlds.

Regardless of how many Democrats run, these dynamics virtually guarantee a competitive primary.

Maryland Republicans have been way outnumbered at the federal level for decades and now hold only two of the eight House seats. They are also scarce in the state Legislature, where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 edge. However, the election of Republican Robert Ehrlich to the governorship in 2002 has given the GOP hope of becoming a more viable party in the state. Republicans also hope that a crowded Democratic primary will provide their party an opening in the Senate race.

Taking advantage of that opening, though, would require recruiting a solid candidate. National Republicans would like to run Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a 46-year-old African-American lawyer. Steele's candidacy would attract national attention and money, making him competitive in a general election -- and perhaps even a good bet, if the Democratic nominee is also black. Without Steele, Republicans' odds of prevailing in the Senate race are much longer.

The possibility that Maryland will host competitive general-election races for governor and for the open Senate seat, plus contested primaries for several House seats, should give the region's campaign enthusiasts plenty of action in 2006.

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