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Election 2024 Government & Politics

Top Democrats mobilizing to compete for Sarbanes’ seat, while GOP sees opportunity

A nighttime view of the U.S. Capitol is captured from the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. Photo by the U.S. Architect of the Capitol.

Less than a week after U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes’ surprise announcement that he would not seek a 10th term, several high-profile Democrats are mobilizing to try to replace him, and Republicans believe the Democratic congressman’s decision could put his 3rd District seat into play for the first time in decades.

Two rising stars in the Maryland General Assembly, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard) and state Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), told Maryland Matters this week that they plan to compete in the Democratic primary next May. Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D) is among the political leaders who is also seriously contemplating entering the contest.

Sarbanes’ looming retirement opens up a rare congressional vacancy in the state. With the primaries half a year away, Democrats and Republicans have just weeks to decide if it is the right opportunity for them.

“There could be a dozen, maybe two dozen candidates,” said Len Foxwell, a veteran Democratic strategist in the state. “It’s a situation that very rarely comes up where you have a vacancy in a district that does not seem to be drawn for any one individual.”

The race will likely attract candidates who are already serving in the state legislature or in local government. A presidential election year campaign becomes a no-risk proposition that will allow them to keep their current job if they lose.

But having so many lawmakers in the race has the potential to change the tone in Annapolis next year, said Foxwell.

“Everyone will be looking for a sexy issue,” he said. “Everyone will be looking for those high-profile issues to get headlines.”

The 3rd District as drawn in the most recent round of redistricting includes all of Howard County. It stretches through Anne Arundel to the Chesapeake Bay and includes Annapolis. It also captures a small portion of Carroll County.

The contours of the district change dramatically every decade, and as a result there are fewer obvious contenders to run for the seat than there are in some of the state’s other districts. Since 1970, the district has been represented by three future U.S. senators: Paul S. Sarbanes (D), Barbara A. Mikulski (D) and Ben Cardin (D), followed by John Sarbanes, the late senator’s son.

“The district is not easily defined and it’s changed considerably as well,” said former Gov. Parris Glendening (D), who lives in Annapolis.

And while the 3rd District is nowhere near as competitive as the state’s other open congressional seat, the 6th District in Western Maryland, some Republicans see potential with Sarbanes out of the picture. Not all, however, believe the current national political climate and the unpopularity of Donald Trump in Maryland can be overcome.

Allan Kittleman was a state senator from Howard County in 2006 when then-Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) vowed to bury the Republican Party so deep that it would take decades to dig out and recover. Eight years later, the state elected its second Republican governor in 12 years, Larry Hogan, who went on to become the first Maryland Republican to serve two consecutive terms since Theodore McKeldin.

“He was wrong,” Kittleman said of Miller’s prediction. “But what Mike Miller couldn’t do, Donald Trump has done. Donald Trump has buried Republicans six feet deep, faces up and we won’t come out for 20 years. …There’s an election this year in Howard and Anne Arundel Counties that a moderate could win — especially a moderate Republican — but it’s not possible because people will not vote for a Republican because of Donald Trump.”

Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) acknowledged Trump could be a drag on Republicans but said inflation and the current state of the economy remain concerns for President Biden’s re-election bid.

“Trump does put a damper on things,” Szeliga conceded. “But I think Biden’s negatives more than nullify Trump’s negatives when it comes to voter turnout.”

Glendening believes the district could be more competitive with Sarbanes out of the picture.

“The Sarbanes name was so tremendously overwhelming,” he said. “It’s a strong Democratic district when you have someone like John Sarbanes, but it could be a swing district.”

A Republican could have a shot in the 3rd District if a nasty primary can be avoided, Szeliga asserted. “I’ll do everything I can to coalesce everyone behind one candidate and not have the knock-down, drag out primary I expect the Democrats will have.”

The Democrats: Atterbeary, Elfreth and many others?

Atterbeary said she could make a formal announcement as early as Thursday.

“I think the seat should vest with somebody who resides in the heart of the district, which is Howard County,” said Atterbeary, who has chaired the Ways and Means Committee since 2022 and has also been a prominent criminal justice reform advocate. “I was born and raised here and have been in public service in the General Assembly since 2014. I think it’s a natural step from what I have been doing .. so I am tossing my hat into the ring.”

Atterbeary is the first from Howard County but almost certainly not the last. And while she, like many Democrats, noted that several high-quality candidates could enter the race, she took subtle digs at Ball and Elfreth in an interview this week.

“It does put a lot of well-qualified individuals in the ring, but I think you have to take a look at everyone’s skillset and what they’ve been able to accomplish in their particular role,” she said. “What I’ve been able to accomplish as a legislator — and that’s what this job is, it’s not being an executive or kind of running an office or a county. It’s building bridges, building relationships, and getting things done that are incredibly hard to get done. Some of the candidates who will throw their hat in the ring just got to Annapolis, so they don’t really have a proven track record.”

Elfreth, who was elected to the Senate from a competitive district in 2018, filed papers with the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday to become a candidate, and is planning an announcement event with several prominent supporters on Saturday.

“I’m running to be the next congresswoman from the 3rd District because I know I can bring new energy to this race and region,” she said. “Congressman Sarbanes was an incredible partner for Anne Arundel, Howard, and Carroll counties and I’ll build on his priorities with my ideas and energy. I’ll be a strong voice on some of the most critical issues facing our nation: to protect choice, to end gun violence, and to stand up for a strong democracy.”

Elfreth also cast herself, as Sarbanes has, as a protector of the Chesapeake Bay, “and everything that means for our quality of life and economy.” She is one of the leading environmentalists in the legislature and is Maryland’s representative on a regional commission of legislators from Bay watershed states.

Ball, should he enter the race, would also be a formidable contender, and he sounded like a candidate in an interview with Maryland Matters this week.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to work on the issues that matter to our community, the district, the state, the nation and the world,” said Ball, who is in his second term as county executive and spent a dozen years on the Howard County Council.

Ball, who will be termed out of office in 2026, just announced an aggressive agenda in his annual State of the County address last month, and said his decision on the congressional race will depend to an extent on where he thinks he can make the greatest difference in the years ahead.

Ball would likely have the highest name recognition of any of the Democratic aspirants and also has a broad political network thanks to his work with the Maryland Association of Counties, which he currently leads. Ball said he would announce a decision by Thanksgiving.

Several other elected officials said they are looking at the race, including state Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County), and Anne Arundel County Council Chair Pete Smith (D).

Lam, who is in his second term in the Senate and also served in the House of Delegates, noted that his current district includes substantial portions of the 3rd Congressional District. The decision, which he called “very personal,” will include consideration of where he believes he can have the most effect.

“We need to continue to have good representation,” said Lam, a public health doctor. “As much as D.C. is broken, we can’t just throw our hands up in the air and say it’s too broken to send anyone good down there. That’s not how you fix something. From that perspective, the question is: Can I be part of the solution? That’s what I’m thinking through.”

Smith, a Marine Corps reservist, said he sees serving in Congress as an extension of his service to country in the military. But he conceded that running and winning a congressional campaign is at a far different scale than competing in a local election.

“It’s aligning my dreams and goals with reality,” said Smith, who said he would decide on the race in the next few weeks. “And reality hits you a lot harder than your dreams.”

Cardin does not live in the 3rd District as it’s currently drawn, but the U.S. Constitution only requires House members to live in the state they represent, not within a district’s boundaries. But Cardin noted that he has lived within the district as it’s historically been drawn — and he’d come to the race with relatively high name recognition as the nephew of Ben Cardin, whose illustrious 58-year political career will come to a close at the end of 2024.

Jon Cardin, in fact, pondered running for the 3rd District seat in 2006, when his uncle stepped down to run for the Senate, but decided to remain in the legislature at the time. In 2014, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for attorney general.

“Who wouldn’t look at this race?” Cardin said Wednesday. “Opportunities like this do not come along very often.”

He added: “I think we have a little bit of time to look at it” before making a decision.

At least one other elected official, Del. Terri L. Hill (D-Howard), is also mentioned as a possible candidate. She could not be reached for comment this week.

The names of a few Democrats who are not elected officials are also in play, including Juan Dominguez, an Anne Arundel County businessman who is running an insurgent campaign for U.S. Senate, and Kristin Riggin Fleckenstein, the deputy secretary at the Maryland Department of Planning.

Dominguez, whose Senate bid was just profiled on WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C., declined to comment.

Fleckenstein, half of a prominent Anne Arundel County couple along with her husband, attorney Tom Fleckenstein, and daughter of Tom Riggin, a longtime Anne Arundel power broker, has held several jobs at the Planning Department and just became deputy secretary in October. She spent almost two decades at the Anne Arundel County state’s attorney’s office.

“I have enormous considerations to weigh, personally and professionally, before making a decision,” Fleckenstein said.

Two other Democrats, Kristin Lyman Nabors and Lindsay Donahue, both of Anne Arundel County, have filed as candidates.

Republicans’ renewed interest

Republican leaders in the state are taking more interest in the district and hope national GOP strategists do as well.

“Congressman Sarbanes’ retirement gives Republicans an opportunity next year,” said Maryland Republican Party Chair Nicole Beus Harris. “While it won’t be easy, it is also not impossible. Our message resonates and will ultimately be what voters gravitate toward at the polls.”

But Kittleman, the former state senator and Howard County executive, cast doubt on how successful candidates from his party can be in the coming election.

“I would certainly have considered running but not in the current climate,” said Kittleman. “I don’t think a Republican can win anywhere in Maryland in a presidential election except for [1st District Congressman] Andy Harris.”

Kittleman said the current climate saddens him because it will hamper other Republican potential candidates, such as Yuripzy Morgan, an attorney and former WBAL Radio personality who was the GOP nominee against Sarbanes in 2022, taking 40% of the vote.

“I really like her. I think she is a commonsense voice for our party,” Kittleman said. “I think she’s a good person and the right kind of person to run but I think it’s hard for any Republican to run given the way it is right now. I think people will vote against an R right now just because they’re an R.”

Morgan, a resident of northern Anne Arundel County, said she is eyeing another campaign, especially now that the incumbent has stepped aside.

“I do think the national climate makes it more difficult but not impossible,” she said. “I think it is also an opportunity for people to set themselves apart.”

Since the election, Morgan has maintained a private law practice. She also has worked as an attorney and spokesperson for People for Elected Accountability and Civic Engagement.

The group, known as PEACE, successfully pushed to add term limits for Baltimore City elected officials. The group is backed by Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns Fox 45 in Baltimore.

Morgan said she could make a final decision on the race by the end of the year.

Bernard Flowers, an Eldridge resident who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in the 2nd District last year, filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run for the 3rd District seat.

Flowers, a 58-year-old retired Air Force officer who later worked at Fort Meade, entered the race before Sarbanes’ retirement announcement. And while he knows the vacant seat will attract more candidates, a crowded field “changes nothing for me tactically.”

“This is where I live and I think I bring a lot to the district as a candidate,” said Flowers. “We’ve got to change the direction of things. Somebody’s got to fix the problem. I’m just a regular guy who’s pissed off.”

Former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who served five terms in Congress, and his wife Kendel have each, in their own right, been floated as potential candidates among some Republicans. Maryland Matters was unable to reach the couple.


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Top Democrats mobilizing to compete for Sarbanes’ seat, while GOP sees opportunity