correction: Earlier versions of this story said the only top-tier state political office ever held by African Americans in Maryland was lieutenant governor. Richard N. Dixon, who served as state treasurer from 1996-2002, was African American.

Dels. Maggie McIntosh, right, Adrienne A. Jones and Dereck E. Davis. (Mark Gail For The Washington Post; Steve Ruark/AP; Linda Davidson /The Washington Post)

The drama over who should lead the lower chamber of the Maryland legislature is so full of tension and suspense that one delegate likened it to the popular fantasy epic playing on HBO.

“It’s ‘Game of Thrones,’ Annapolis style,” said Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), reflecting on the ugliness of the race to succeed longtime House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who died earlier this month.

There have been threats, as the Democrats, who hold more than two-thirds of the seats in the House of Delegates, weigh whether to elect the first black speaker or the first woman, who would also be the first openly gay person to hold the powerful position. Outside groups, including unions, black pastors and social advocacy organizations, have vowed political retaliation for Democrats depending on whom they support.

Ahead of a vote scheduled for Wednesday, questions of race, gender and ideology took center stage, with a third candidate, an African American woman, dropping out to throw her support behind Dereck E. Davis of Prince George’s County. Other powerful Democrats spoke openly and bitterly about whether the need to recognize the historic role of African Americans in the Democratic electorate outweighed the importance of uniting behind the party’s liberal agenda.

“Many of the [Legislative Black] Caucus feel bullied into voting for a black candidate,” said one African American lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the intraparty tensions. “It’s gotten so nasty that people are beating up on you. In the quick and dirty way of describing this — ‘Why wouldn’t you support the black candidate?’ — I just don’t want to deal with it. It’s been very, very divisive, and I don’t want to be the target of it. It’s bullying.”

The unusually public battle initially involved three veteran Democratic lawmakers — Davis, the chairman of the Economic Matters Committee; Maggie McIntosh, the first openly gay woman in the legislature and the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee; and House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones. It became a two-person race Friday, after Jones, of Baltimore County, dropped her bid.

McIntosh, who is white, has pledges of support from 60 of the 98 Democrats in the House, according to several people familiar with the vote-counting, including the party’s most-left-leaning flank and more than a third of the 45-member Black Caucus.

But Davis, who is more of a centrist, also has strong support among black lawmakers and is trying to build on that base, buoyed by calls from African American pastors and others to rally behind a black candidate. Even though Maryland is one-third African American, a black person has never held any of the state’s top-tier positions, except lieutenant governor and, from 1996-2002, state treasurer. African Americans nominated by Democrats in the last two gubernatorial elections lost to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is white.

“This is a critical moment in the state of Maryland and our number one objective is to make sure the next speaker of the House is one of our members,” said Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “We want to make sure we’re on the right side of history, and that it makes sense for us.”

While in the past, the Democratic caucus has voted on the House floor for whichever candidate wins a majority of Democratic support in a private vote, Davis and his supporters have refused to say whether they will support McIntosh during Wednesday’s special legislative session. That opens the door for Davis to win the speakership with a share of the Democratic vote and support from the 42 Republicans in the House, who say they will vote as a bloc — but have not settled on a candidate.

McIntosh (Baltimore City) and several prominent Democratic leaders — including state party chair Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who is African American — say it would be unprecedented, and deeply harmful to the Democratic agenda, for a speaker to be elected in the Democratic-majority House on the basis of Republican support.

Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) has been chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee since 2015. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

“This has happened in two other states, and the outcome was a disaster,” McIntosh said. “They lost the ability to get things done.”

Seventy-one votes — a majority of 141 delegates in the chamber — are needed to win.

Davis and McIntosh both said in interviews last week that the tensions were to be expected, given the importance of the decision to replace Busch, the longest-serving speaker in Maryland history.

“This talk of fracturing, this is politics. It’s been referred to as a blood sport,” Davis said. “To think we aren’t going to break a few eggs from time to time as we make decisions is just fallacy.”

McIntosh was adamant that the House will “bring ourselves together. . . . And that’s going to happen under a Speaker Davis or a Speaker McIntosh, okay?” But she also said the rift would be much harder to repair if the fissure goes all the way to a floor fight.

“There becomes this incredible tear both at the fabric of our caucus and at the Legislative Black Caucus,” McIntosh said. “How do you fix that? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t.”

Others in the caucus also said it was unclear how quickly the Democratic caucus could come back together.

“It’s absolutely insane,” Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Prince George’s) said of the tension. “The thing that gets me is, what happens after the election?”

An open letter being circulated on Facebook, endorsed by several lawmakers, both black and white, said Democrats in the General Assembly “now know that members of the minority party intend to exploit divisions among us to elect a Speaker who would be more inclined to help that small minority determine policy, instead of advancing an agenda focused on Democratic values . . .

“[W]e are calling on all members of the Democratic Caucus to rally full support around whomever the Caucus nominates to be the next Speaker of the House.”

Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), a member of the Black Caucus, would not comment last week on whom he will back Wednesday. But, he said, “Folks are taking everything into consideration — policy, reforms, diversity, geography. . . . There is a lot to go into the decision.”

Barron is one of two dozen lawmakers (10 of whom are black) who have collectively surveyed the speaker candidates on whether they would support reforms to the House power structure, to make “the body more democratic.”

Among the questions asked was whether they supported eight-year term limits for the speaker, the creation of a separate “progressive” caucus and having Democrats elect caucus leaders, instead of having the speaker appoint them.

Davis, who has built a reputation over the years as a moderate Democrat, said he is not “running to represent the Black Caucus, women’s caucus . . . [or] the Democratic caucus. I’m running to be speaker of the House of Delegates.” He welcomed votes from the GOP caucus but said he was trying to win on Democratic support.

Rockeymoore Cummings escalated the tensions with an open letter to the Democratic caucus last week that many members interpreted as a threat to anyone who sides with Republicans to elect a new speaker.

“The Maryland Democratic Party is prepared to penalize (e.g. deny access to party tools and resources, charge a higher premium for services, etc.) any elected official who is caught using Party resources to promote Republican candidates and/or who work to block the ascension of Democratic nominees duly elected through official Democratic processes and procedures,” she wrote.

Earlier, a statement from nearly a dozen progressive groups and unions urged Democrats to support the caucus’s nominee or risk losing support from their organizations when they run for reelection.

“There is perhaps no greater indication of a member’s values than who they install as the next Speaker,” that letter states. “As such, every member organization signed below will take this vote into serious consideration in evaluating incumbents in future elections.”

Many Democrats, especially those who support Davis, were furious.

Wilson said he was angry and “offended” that the unions and the state Democratic Party would appear to retaliate over his decision to vote for a black Democratic candidate.

Barnes, the Black Caucus chairman, called the letter from Rockeymoore Cummings “bullying.” Within hours, Rockeymoore Cummings arranged a conference call with reporters to say the letter was misinterpreted. She said she was simply calling on “Democrats to support other Democrats” and encouraging Democratic delegates during the floor vote to unite behind whomever wins the majority of the votes during Wednesday morning’s caucus vote.

State Sen. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s), who is African American, said both Davis and McIntosh have the opportunity to make history and all are Democrats, so Rockeymoore Cummings “should not have weighed in on how they get to the finish line and who breaks the glass ceiling.”

“African Americans have felt the thumb on the scale against our advancement in a way that no other group has experienced,” she said. “When we have seen progress, it has been because we have used ingenuity and been willing to take risk.”

A few delegates posted on social media about the angst and heartbreak they’ve felt over the race and how it has pitted race against gender.

Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery) said on Facebook that the bitter campaign is the result of “decades of frustration built up about people waiting their turn while white men have disproportionately held on to power. . . . Now like crabs in a barrel we fight for our sliver of power and access to power.”

Rachel Chason contributed to this report.