It has been more than two months since Maryland’s 6th congressional district seat — by far the most competitive in the state — came open.
But while half a dozen candidates have already come forward in the Democratic and Republican primaries, there’s a sense among political professionals that the field isn’t anywhere near complete — and that some of the biggest names have yet to step forward.
“If I was a betting man, I’d say you’d see 10 to 12 candidates, on both sides,” said Woodsboro Mayor Heath Barnes, who is joining the GOP race for Congress later this month.
It’s somewhat surprising that the election has developed so slowly. Congressional vacancies are rare in Maryland, and there’s no shortage of ambitious officeholders and political activists looking to move up. In a presidential election year, when state lawmakers and most local officials do not have to sacrifice their seats, running for Congress is essentially a free shot. And at this point, there are no obvious favorites in either primary.
“Clearly there’s no frontrunner [in the Democratic race] at this point,” said Del. Lily Qi (D-Montgomery), who continues to ponder the race. “There are a lot of moving pieces.”
Some political professionals believe the race has been slow to evolve because potential candidates were waiting for U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D), who represents the adjoining 8th District, to decide whether he would run for Senate next year. There was some speculation that a Raskin Senate bid would prompt the 6th District congressman, David Trone (D), who announced his Senate candidacy just a few days after incumbent Sen. Ben Cardin (D) revealed his retirement plans, to drop back and seek reelection.
Another school of thought was that at least some of the Democrats who might have run for Raskin’s seat if it had become vacant might now look to the 6th District for political opportunities. With Raskin announcing two weeks ago that he was opting for reelection, Trone is staying in the Senate race. And at least one Democrat who might have been expected to run for a vacant seed in the 8th district is in fact turning his attention to the 6th.
Joel Rubin, a foreign policy expert who worked for the Obama administration and previously served on the Chevy Chase Town Council, will announce Monday that he plans to seek the 6th District seat.
“I love Congress,” Rubin said in an interview. “I love Capitol Hill and I love our community. We have major fights on our hands right now with an extremist right-wing agenda in the House, which I’ve been fighting my entire life.”
Rubin was a State Department liaison to the House of Representatives during the Obama years, and defended the agency’s role — and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — before the House special select committee on Benghazi. More recently, he was national Jewish outreach coordinator for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, and then did policy work for President Biden’s campaign. He has also worked for the American Jewish Congress and for J Street, a liberal Jewish advocacy group.
Rubin has already run unsuccessfully for Congress in the 8th District, finishing eighth in a nine-way open seat primary that Raskin won in 2016. But that was an unusual and expensive race with many A list political personalities in the primary, including Raskin, Trone, former TV anchor Kathleen Matthews, who subsequently became chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, and other well-established politicians and future officeholders.
“I really enjoyed that race — all of the highs and lows of it,” Rubin said. “But I feel like I ran into a lot of headwinds. Now I have eight more years of experience and experience as a local elected official. I’ve continued to be engaged all of these years.”
Rubin spent six years on the Chevy Chase Town Council, where, he said, “every single day I was talking to neighbors, managing volunteer networks, talking to the state government and the County Council.” His council service overlapped with the pandemic and its aftermath, which he views as a significant experience.
Rubin has also run unsuccessfully for a seat in the House of Delegates in 2018, where he finished fifth in an eight-way primary for three seats, and sought to be nominated by the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee in District 18 when an unexpected House vacancy materialized right before the 2022 Democratic primary.
The 6th District is divided between parts of Montgomery County and Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties in Western Maryland — and culturally, there are huge differences between the Montgomery County territory and much of the rest of the district.
But Rubin remains unfazed. He grew up in Pittsburgh, and many residents in the westernmost part of Maryland have more in common with the Pittsburgh metropolitan area — including professional sports loyalties — than they do with the rest of the Free State.
“It’s very much metropolitan Pittsburgh, when you get into Allegany County,” he said. “So I feel very tied to the things people in the district care about.”
Rubin may not be the only 8th District resident to get into the 6th District race — and it should be pointed out that Trone and his predecessor, former Rep. John Delaney (D), were also 8th District residents.
One potential candidate who lives in the 8th is April McLain Delaney, the former congressman’s wife, who is a high-ranking Commerce Department official in the Biden administration and is said by Democratic insiders to be interviewing potential staffers ahead of a possible run for Trone’s seat. McLain Delaney did not respond to a phone message on Friday, but she is expected to be one of the best-funded candidates in the race if she gets in. Other candidates from outside the 6th District could also emerge.
Meanwhile, well-known Democrats who live in the 6th District continue to ponder the race. That includes former Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner, who would immediately be considered a leading candidate if she got into the primary. Gardner told the Frederick News Post last week that she’s still “contemplating” whether to run, but her reticence since Trone announced his Senate bid two-plus months ago has surprised some political professionals. Gardner is a one-time aide to former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D).
Montgomery County Councilmember Laurie-Anne Sayles (D) has yet to make a decision about running, but she was scheduled to speak at a church in Cumberland over the weekend, and the flier announcing her appearance described her as a candidate for the congressional seat. Sayles told Maryland Matters late last week that that characterization was premature and that she can best be described as a “likely” candidate for now.
Qi is one of two state lawmakers who represent District 15 who are at least taking a look at the congressional primary.
“I am still talking to people,” she said in an interview Friday. “I’ve told myself I’m going to wrap this up soon, either way. I don’t want to drag this out all summer.”
Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), the chair of the Senate Committee on Education, Energy and the Environment, who said he was considering his political options immediately after Trone’s Senate announcement, did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. He also represents District 15 in Annapolis.
Another possibility on the Democratic side is Krish Vignarajah, who ran for governor in 2018 and is now the director of the Lutheran Immigration Relief Service in Baltimore. Vignarajah, who just had her second child in April, did not respond to a message on Friday.
Seven Democrats have already entered the race: Montgomery County Dels. Lesley J. Lopez and Joe Vogel; Hagerstown Mayor Takesha Martinez; Mia Mason, a military veteran who twice ran for Congress in the 1st District; Stephen McDow, a businessman; Destiny Drake West, a former congressional aide and founder of the Drake Institute for Women’s Policy; and George Gluck, a frequent candidate who has sought the seat on the Green Party ticket in the past.
GOP field also growing
The Republican primary picked up two new candidates last week, Barnes, the Woodsboro mayor, and military veteran Tom Royals. But there is a sense among political strategists in the state that the field could be incomplete.
There is some confusion about whether former Del. Dan Cox, the 2022 GOP nominee for governor, is still thinking about the race. Someone filed candidacy papers with the Federal Election Commission on his behalf on July 3, but Cox told Maryland Matters at the time that he hadn’t decided whether to run and wasn’t sure who had submitted the paperwork. The Daily Beast later reported that it was a Cox campaign operative who filed the papers — and that Cox has subsequently decided not to run. Cox has been publicly silent since then.
Despite being wiped out in the general election for governor last year, Cox would be formidable in the Republican primary. But even though he represented a portion of the district in the General Assembly, his brand of politics may be too conservative for the 6th, which President Biden carried in 2020.
Another unknown is whether Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany), the House minority leader in Annapolis, might seek the congressional seat. While Buckel might be one of the Republicans’ strongest general election candidates, he says he won’t decide whether to become a candidate until later in the summer.
Former Del. Neil C. Parrott, the two-time Republican challenger to Trone, has created an exploratory committee for 2024, to begin fundraising, but he hasn’t fully committed to another congressional bid. Another former delegate, Brenda J. Thiam, filed paperwork with the FEC to run for the congressional seat, but she has not discussed her candidacy publicly and did not respond to a phone message last week.
Also seeking the GOP nomination: Mariela Roca, a medical logistics manager who sought the Republican nomination in 2022; Chris Hyser, a retired Maryland State Police trooper; and Todd Puglisi, a food service worker.
Candidates still have half a year before committing to the race: The filing deadline for the May 14, 2024 primary is Jan. 19.