Is Cardin announcement imminent? Political players search for clues, prepare for ’24
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) roamed the stage of an auditorium at a senior citizen retirement complex in Gaithersburg, giving little indication that he has any plans to become a retiree himself.
During an hour-long town hall at Asbury Methodist Village the other day, the 79-year-old lawmaker spoke fluidly about gun safety, abortion rights, border security, climate change, and foreign policy challenges in Central America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Haiti. He called out the local officials in the auditorium and saluted them for their hard work.
About two-thirds of the way through the program, Maria Roberts, the head of the Asbury Methodist Democrats, rose to point out that serving in the U.S. Senate is “no walk in the park.” She asked Cardin about gun control, and then slipped in a question about whether he plans to seek a fourth term next year.
“You’re going to be shocked to hear I’m not going to answer your second question,” Cardin replied, eliciting chuckles.
Yet it is a question that hangs over the entire 2024 election cycle in Maryland. And the answer, in the view of many political professionals, is going to come very soon — perhaps as early as this week.
Already, two high-profile officeholders, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) and U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-6th), are mobilizing to run if Cardin doesn’t. Another powerhouse political leader, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-8th), could also be in the mix. Several other Democrats are mentioned as possible candidates as well, including Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando, and 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous.
The domino effect of a possible Cardin retirement, depending on who gets into any hypothetical race to replace him, is potentially massive. The unknowns include whether Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller (D), who just took office in January, might run for Congress if Trone seeks the Senate seat.
With the close of the General Assembly session last Monday, speculation about Cardin’s plans became Topic A in Maryland political circles. In the earlier part of the week, it was hard to find consensus about Cardin’s intentions. But late in the week, and over the weekend, the needle seemed to move, with chatter about a Cardin retirement announcement being imminent.
Cardin himself, in a brief interview after his town hall in Gaithersburg Thursday, would say only, “We’re in the process of making a decision.”
He may not be a historic figure in American politics, the way former Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulksi (D) was, or a fiery orator like U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-5th) — who won his first election the same year Cardin did, in 1966 — or as charismatic as some younger Maryland elected officials. But Cardin has been as much a part of Maryland’s political fabric as any of them, and a consequential leader in myriad ways — from his time as speaker of the House in Annapolis, to his 10 terms in the U.S. House, to his tenure in the Senate, where he chairs the Small Business Committee and has senior roles on the Foreign Relations and Environment and Public Works committees, among others. He has held elective office for 57 consecutive years.
With little concrete evidence to go on, Maryland political sleuths have been searching for clues about Cardin’s possible intentions. Is he a top sponsor of Tuesday night’s fundraiser for Emerge Maryland, the group that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for political office? Yes — but not at the highest sponsorship level, where Alsobrooks, Olszewski, Gov. Wes Moore (D) and first lady Dawn Moore sit. Is he scheduled to speak at the annual Western Maryland Democratic Summit on April 22 at the Rocky Gap resort in Cumberland? Yes. Is he keeping up a breakneck schedule of public appearances when the Senate isn’t in session? Absolutely.
What about political fundraising? According to new reports filed with the Federal Election Commission this weekend, Cardin raised just $15,042 in the first three months of 2023, most of it from political action committees that are conditioned to give money to U.S. senators almost reflexively. He spent $38,303 during that period. But he had $995,028 in his campaign account as of March 31, a solid base to build on if he seeks reelection.
Cardin told Maryland Matters last week that he never starts actively fundraising until he decides whether to run in the next election.
“I’m not worried about money,” he said.
As Cardin approaches a final decision, he’s likely weighing several factors: Family considerations. His health, which appears to be excellent. Whether Democrats can keep control of the Senate in 2024. Whether President Biden is going to be reelected. Whether he has one last chapter in public service beyond politics, if he wants one, and what that might be.
The pressure ailing 89-year-old California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) is under to retire early, before her term ends in January 2025, and the political furor that is causing in California and on Capitol Hill, cannot be ignored. Cardin would be 87 if he were reelected and served another full six-year term.
Mikulski announced her plans to retire in March 2015, 13 months before the next Democratic primary, when she was 78. The late Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) was 72 when he announced his retirement plans in March 2005, a full year and a half before the Democratic primary. After some confusion, the 2024 primary is now set for May 14.
What the FEC reports reveal
The fundraising reports may contain clues about other potential candidates: Raskin, who has become a national Democratic hero since serving as lead manager for former President Trump’s second impeachment, continues to raise prodigious amounts of money. In the first three months of 2023, he took in $509,872 and banked $3,349,966 after spending $280,904 — about half of it went to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and to members of Congress and Maryland legislators.
Since early this year, Raskin has been undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of cancer, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, which is expected to end in the next few weeks. But even beyond his health considerations, Raskin has the most to sacrifice of all the potential Democratic Senate contenders by making a statewide run, however the prospect of serving in the Senate may appeal to him.
Trone and any other House member would also have to sacrifice their seats to run for Senate (whereas county leaders like Alsobrooks and Olszewski, or anyone holding a state office, would not in 2024). But Raskin is the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, a bulwark against Republicans aggressively investigating Biden and the president’s family. He’s also a vice chair of the DCCC in charge of organization, and Democratic leaders are counting on Raskin to stump for several candidates across the country beginning this summer, if his health permits. Raskin would almost certainly become chair of the Oversight panel if Democrats retake the majority in 2024. So he’ll have to weigh all of these considerations — meaning a final decision on a Senate run is likely to come later rather than sooner.
Trone’s campaign finance reports rarely offer any clues about his political plans, because the congressman, owner of a national liquor store chain, almost exclusively self-funds his campaigns. His latest report shows he took in $185,013 in the first quarter of the year — $150,000 from his own pocket — and had $171,339 in his campaign account on March 31.
But Trone continues to keep Harrison Hickman, a national Democratic pollster and strategist, on his campaign payroll, and paid Hickman’s firm almost $112,000 from Jan. 1 to March 31. And Trone emissaries are said to be reaching out to potential staffers ahead of a likely Senate bid. It is widely assumed that Trone would be willing to spend upwards of $30 million for a statewide run.
One House member who does not appear to be preparing to run for Senate, at least based on campaign finance activity, is Rep. John Sarbanes (D), who has been seen by political insiders as a potential candidate in the past. Sarbanes, the son of the former senator who was elected to replace Cardin in the House in 2006, has dramatically scaled back his fundraising activities in recent years as he becomes a leading proponent of political and campaign finance reform. He raised just $11,482 in the first three months of the year and reported $478,859 on hand.
Alsobrooks, according to several Democratic officials and strategists, is poised to jump into the Senate race if Cardin announces that he’s retiring. She has kept parts of her political team intact since winning a second term overwhelmingly last year, including pollster Fred Yang, and recently hired David Chase, who ran then-Rep. Tim Ryan’s unsuccessful but highly-regarded Senate bid in Ohio last year, as a consultant.
Alsobrooks has long been regarded as a rising political star in the state, and could appeal to a wide swath of the Democratic electorate — including women and Black voters. She might also be seen as the closest thing to an establishment candidate, especially if Moore, who owes her big-time for her strategic endorsement during last year’s Democratic primary for governor, and Vice President Kamala Harris, a political mentor, choose to back her early in the primary.
Jawando, who just was reelected to an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council, is also looking seriously at a Senate bid, though would almost certainly run for the House if Raskin runs for Senate.
“Should Sen. Cardin decide to retire after his years of service, I’ve certainly been encouraged to consider ways for me to continue my service, and that’s something I’m thinking about,” Jawando said.
Jawando may not be as well known statewide as some of the other potential contenders, but he starts with a solid base in Montgomery County and would tout his youth (he’s 41) and his progressive bonafides. Jawando already has a national political network, having run unsuccessfully for the U.S. House in 2016 (his Democratic primary opponents included Raskin and Trone), served in the Obama administration, and worked on Capitol Hill for then-Sen. Barack Obama, for Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and for then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). He also went on a nationwide book tour last year after he published a memoir, “My Seven Black Fathers.”
Jawando’s wife, Michele Jawando, who is currently a senior vice president of the Omidyar Network, a major philanthropic entity, has also worked on Capitol Hill and has a national political network of her own.
Olszewski is watching developments closely to see if there is an opening in the Senate primary for a Baltimore-based candidate, and he would also tout his youth (he is 40) and his policy chops in the race (he’s got a Ph.D in public policy and his political career began with his election to the House of Delegates when he was 26). But he is seen as more likely to run for a House seat if Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-2nd) chooses not to seek an 11th term.
Ruppersberger, who is 77, continues to raise money at a steady clip, collecting $150,671 since Jan. 1 and banking $938,284 on March 31 — the biggest war chest among U.S. House incumbents in Maryland other than Raskin.
Jealous, who took over as national executive director of the Sierra Club in January, continues to remain a player in Maryland politics, and was a key endorser and adviser of Moore’s last year. The former NAACP president would likely occupy the progressive lane, as he did during the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, if he ran this time.
The down-ballot impacts of a wide-open Democratic Senate primary are hard to even fathom at this point.
If Trone runs for Senate, his district, already the most competitive in the state, would become even more of a toss-up and would embolden Republicans to challenge it seriously. Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany), the House minority leader in Annapolis, has already signaled that he might be prepared to run for an open seat, though he would hardly be alone in the GOP primary.
On the Democratic side, all eyes initially would be on Miller, the lieutenant governor, who was runner-up to Trone in the 2018 Democratic primary for the 6th District House seat. Miller began raising money for another congressional bid on the theory that Trone might run for governor in 2022, but stopped when Trone decided to seek reelection and eventually was picked to be Moore’s running mate.
Miller would not necessarily have the Democratic field to herself, but would undoubtedly make it smaller should she choose to run. Other potential Democratic candidates include former Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner Del. Lesley J. Lopez (Montgomery) and Sen. Brian J. Feldman (Montgomery), the chair of the Senate Committee on Education, Energy and the Environment.
Should Raskin run for Senate, the number of candidates for his House seat could be incalculable, especially since county and state officeholders would not have to sacrifice their seats to run for Congress next year. The list would start with Jawando and state Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), the chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee in Annapolis, among many others.
Similarly, there seem to be a surfeit of potential candidates for Ruppersberger’s and Sarbanes’ seats, if they decided to move on from Congress.
And Hoyer, who turns 84 on June 14, is also the object of retirement speculation, though he raised $138,233 in the first quarter of the year and finished March with $707,447 on hand. Hoyer, who has been a widower for a quarter century, is also getting married that month, to Elaine Kamarck, a Clinton administration veteran who is a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program as well as the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. What the looming nuptials mean for his political plans is anybody’s guess.
But the 2024 electoral dominoes won’t start to fall until Cardin reveals his plans. His parting words to the seniors’ group in Gaithersburg the other day: “It’s an honor to represent you in the Senate.”
(Disclosure: The David and June Trone Family Foundation has been a financial supporter of Maryland Matters. Jamie Raskin and Will Jawando have been featured guests at Maryland Matters fundraisers.)