BALTIMORE -- To run or not to run?
With 18 months to go until the 2006 Senate primary election, that's the question several of Maryland's Democratic congressmen are carefully weighing in the wake of U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes' surprise retirement announcement.
The crux of their political soul-searching is whether to give up a secure, hard-won position in the U.S. House of Representatives to join a potentially crowded group pursuing a rare open Senate seat -- Mr. Sarbanes has served for nearly 30 years; Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski for nearly 20.
Kweisi Mfume, a former five-term congressman and former president of the NAACP, and activist A. Robert Kaufman have already declared their intention to run. But several others, including Democratic Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Chris Van Hollen, have expressed "serious interest" and are actively gauging their chance at success.
"An open Senate seat is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Barbara Hoffman, an Annapolis lobbyist and former Democratic state senator who has discussed the race with Mr. Cardin and Mr. Mfume. "You go for it, because you know you may never have the opportunity again. At the same time, you know that no one is going to hand it to you."
In weighing their decision, the congressmen must determine their ability to raise money for a long, possibly bitter campaign, even as they poll voters to test their name recognition, Miss Hoffman said: "They have to also weigh, 'Do I really want to do this?'"
Mr. Cardin is in his 10th term representing Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, which includes parts of Baltimore city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties.
"The decision I face is, what's best for the people I represent? And can I continue to do better as a public servant in the Senate? It clearly would be a tough battle, and the battle part I'm prepared for," Mr. Cardin said in a recent interview. "At the end of the day, it's a judgment call, and it's a call that I make based on what's best for me and my constituents."
Mr. Cardin, meanwhile, has been working the phone, testing how he's received in various parts of the state: "If I run for Senate, I want to be a candidate for the entire state. I'm trying to find out how well that plays."
The agony over whether to leave a job in Congress for a chance at the Senate is real, experts say.
"It's a sacrifice," said James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park. "These guys spend a lot of time grooming their political careers and may not be ready for retirement yet."
On the positive side, Mr. Gimpel says, a victory in the primary has traditionally assured a win for a Democrat in a statewide election.
Mr. Sarbanes has served five terms, the longest for a Maryland senator; Miss Mikulski is now in her fourth. Democrats also outnumber Republicans in Maryland 2-to-1, although the state elected a Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., in 2002 for the first time in 36 years.
The strong allure of a Senate run, Mr. Gimpel says, is that "once you win the [Democratic] primary, it's pretty much your ticket to a career seat in the Senate."
That incentive is tempting Mr. Van Hollen, who just won his second term representing Maryland's 8th Congressional District, which covers parts of the D.C. suburbs. He recently hired longtime Democratic strategist Mike Morrill to work on his exploratory team. Mr. Morrill worked on Miss Mikulski's most recent re-election campaign and was communications director for Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Mr. Van Hollen, who's been talking to friends and colleagues cultivated during 12 years in the Maryland legislature, said he has no timetable. "You have to make a determination to see if you've reached a political critical mass," he said. "You do that by talking to people from around the state."
The congressmen also are measuring how they might stack up against the other possible contenders.
Mr. Ruppersberger, who has set up an "exploratory team" to test the waters, said in a recent interview that he would "strongly" consider stepping aside if Mr. Cardin decided to run. He and Mr. Cardin will sit down soon to discuss the Senate race.
"Can I win or can he win if both of us are in the race? That's something we have to sit down and talk about," Mr. Ruppersberger said. "I've got to weigh a lot of issues."
Miss Hoffman said she thinks the primary will come down to Mr. Van Hollen, Mr. Cardin and Mr. Mfume.
She thinks Mr. Cardin, a House veteran, will take a chance, and that he will also be the front-runner because of "his ability to raise money, his credibility for being ready, for having enough experience."
"He's seasoned," she said.
Mr. Van Hollen, a relative newcomer to the House, faces the more difficult decision, Miss Hoffman said: "If he tries and fails, he's given up something he fought very hard for. He's risking that position" in Congress.
But "at some point, as a politician, you say 'up or out,'" Miss Hoffman said. "These opportunities for the U.S. Senate come along very rarely. Congressmen who make the leap are usually at a point where they're willing to take the risk and do something else if they lose."