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Josh Kurtz: What’s Next for Senate Democrats?

Steam rises in front of the Maryland State House in Annapolis. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

This much is certain: Anyone who says they know what’s going to go down when the Senate Democratic Caucus meets next Thursday is lying – or deluding themselves.

At this point, it’s entirely likely that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) himself doesn’t know.

That hasn’t stopped a whole lot of breathless speculation since we learned Tuesday afternoon that Democratic senators are being summoned to a caucus meeting in Annapolis next week, agenda unknown.

But it’s widely – and fairly – assumed that topic A will be Miller’s health, and whether he intends to pass the leadership reins soon to someone else after 33 years on the job.

Miller, who is 76, has promised his colleagues an update on his medical condition and his political plans; this is probably it.

One thing we have ascertained from our conversations Tuesday is that the Democrats are expected to discuss caucus rules at their meeting next week. Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), the caucus chairman, and Senate staffers have been tasked with drawing up rules for leadership elections.

It’s been 37 years since Senate Democrats have had a contested election for president. That’s when Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County) ousted James Clark Jr. (D-Howard) in a coup; Miller was unopposed when he was elevated to Senate president, four years later. So no one knows what these elections are supposed to look like and feel like; that will be one topic of discussion.

One thing we’re reasonably confident of is that there won’t be an immediate vote for Senate president next week, even if Miller announces he’s stepping down. Miller plans to hold a news conference as soon as the caucus meeting ends.

Senate Democrats are clearly, and unavoidably, thinking about what – and who – comes next. And while they weigh the four likeliest candidates to succeed Miller – Majority Leader Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), Budget and Taxation Chairwoman Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), Capital Budget Chairman Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s) and Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), though there could be others – they must also consider exactly what they’re looking for in a new leader.

Most successful presiding officers are champion fundraisers, top-flight strategists, visionaries, policy wonks, political communicators, cheerleaders, flexible and open-minded and, when necessary, disciplinarians. That’s a lot of qualities to hope to find in one individual, and it’s fair to say that not all the candidates to succeed Miller possess all of them.

Senators will have any number of other considerations as they ponder the possibilities: Age, experience, ideology, gender, race (if an African-American candidate emerges), geography, areas of expertise, likability.

Do they want someone who’s just like Miller, or the complete opposite? Do they envision the next Senate leader serving for decades, as Miller has, or do they prefer a quick turnaround? Do they want someone to go toe-to-toe daily with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), or more of a conciliator? Does the fact that the House has a brand new presiding officer, in Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), become a factor?

Each senator will also have his or her own set of priorities if there’s a vote to replace Miller: Which candidate do I like the best? Which scenario is better for me personally? Who is promising me what, and can they deliver?

Miller has admonished his colleagues, especially those seeking to replace him, to keep it civil. In a perfect world, he’d like them to “work it out” themselves, whatever that means. Clearly that’s wishful thinking. But having watched a fairly messy succession process play out recently in the House, one that is just settling down, senators are aware of what could happen in their own chamber if the election becomes too acrimonious.

Here again, anyone who says they know who’s ahead in the jockeying to succeed Miller is lying – or deluding themselves.

Caucus elections are family affairs, and unless you’re part of the family, you really don’t know what’s going on inside it. And caucuses often have their own set of priorities that aren’t apparent to the rest of the world.

Look no further than the U.S. Senate for proof. If you could name the last person you’d want to be stuck with on a deserted island, it would probably be Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). But he’s majority leader! If you could name the second to last person you’d want to be stuck with on a deserted island, it would probably be his predecessor as majority leader, former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the second coming of Mr. Peepers.

Explain, please, their hold on their caucuses. They’re living proof that caucuses have their own mysterious dynamics.

But this is not a mystery, and it’s also no small irony: If senators were asked today to name their ideal pick to lead them into 2020, most would say Mike Miller.

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Josh Kurtz: What’s Next for Senate Democrats?