Nearly six months after U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) announced that he would not seek another term, a second wave of Democratic candidates could reshape Maryland's first open Senate race in two decades.
Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist and sister of FOX News anchor Greta Van Susteren, plans to make her bid official today. Allan J. Lichtman, a fellow Bethesda resident and American University history professor, has penciled in a date this month to announce his candidacy.
Potomac businessman Joshua Rales and former Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen also say they probably will enter the 2006 contest this month. Rales has hired a campaign manager and is pledging to spend millions of his own money on the race. Rasmussen said he has conducted polling that shows that there is room for a more conservative candidate in the primary, which is a year away.
"It sounds like we could have a train wreck," said Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and NAACP leader who in March became the first candidate.
Since April, the Democratic field has featured only Mfume and one other established politician, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, along with community activist A. Robert Kaufman. All are from Baltimore.
All of the newcomers argue that they have a constituency waiting to embrace them and that a lot can happen during a long campaign. But so far, they are drawing mostly skepticism from political analysts.
"Even if you create a candidate with the intellect of Allan Lichtman, the celebrity connections of Lise Van Susteren, the governing experience of Dennis Rasmussen and the money of Josh Rales, they still couldn't win," said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Cardin and Mfume just start too far ahead."
As of July, the last month for which campaign finance reports have been submitted, Cardin had raised more than $1.1 million and collected endorsements from many Democratic leaders. Mfume had raised far less, about $134,000, but he enjoys widespread name recognition.
Schaller and others say it is possible that the new candidates collectively could draw enough votes from Cardin to tip the race toward Mfume, currently the only African American candidate in a primary in which black voters could account for as much as 40 percent of the turnout.
But analysts also underscore that such things are hard to predict. It is also possible, for instance, that some of the new candidates could cut into Mfume's liberal base.
And still more Democratic candidates could join the race -- including some with bigger names -- before filing closes in July 2006. Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens is pondering her political future and has not ruled out the Senate race. And last week, Del. Anthony G. Brown (D-Prince George's), an Army Reservist fresh from a tour of duty in Iraq, said he is considering the race, too.
On the Republican side, party leaders have rallied around Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has formed an exploratory committee. Two other candidates -- Daniel Muffoletto of Ellicott City and Corrogan R. Vaughn of Baltimore County -- have entered the race but are not expected to pose a threat to Steele if he moves forward with a bid.
Democratic leaders say the race is attractive because it is the first time since 1986 -- when Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) was elected -- that an incumbent will not be on the ballot. Marylanders have made a habit of sending their senators to Washington for long stays. Sarbanes was first elected in 1976.
Several of the newcomers are seeking to position themselves as political outsiders compared to Cardin, who has held elective office since 1967, and Mfume, who served five terms in the House of Representatives before leading the NAACP for nine years.
Some analysts have said that the newcomers probably will have trouble building political organizations to rival those of the established candidates, particularly Cardin.
"If you've been in politics a long time, you know people who are leaders who have constituencies and followings," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. "You can't create that overnight."