Kweisi Mfume won a decisive victory in Tuesday’s primary election in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District.
Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a former state party chair and the congressman’s widow, and state Sen. Jill P. Carter (Baltimore City), a former public defender, face an uphill battle to overcome Mfume’s name recognition and political support that goes back decades, analysts say.
In a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans about 4 to 1, Mfume is poised to serve the remainder of Cummings’s term after the April 28 special general election, occupying at least for the rest of the year the seat he held in Congress from 1987 to 1996.
He fielded congratulatory calls Wednesday after winning 43 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns. Rockeymoore Cummings won 17 percent, and Carter won 16 percent, far ahead of the rest of the field.
Rockeymoore Cummings and Carter say they’ll perform better in the next showdown, theregular primary, which is also on April 28 and is expected to have much higher turnout, with presidential contenders and candidates for Baltimore mayor and City Council also on the ballot.
The question, political observers said, is whether either woman can demystify what will be a long and complicated ballot and surmount voters’ knowledge of and — in some cases, lifelong affinity for — Mfume.
“For him to wind up winning so comfortably was surprising and speaks to how difficult it will be to change the result between now and April,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Mfume’s experience in Congress and leadership at the NAACP, although marred by allegations of workplace harassment, “really paid off politically,” Eberly said.
Carter and Rockeymoore Cummings are each stressing the need to send a woman from Maryland to Washington, where men have exclusively represented the state in the three years since former senator Barbara A. Mikulski retired and former congresswoman Donna F. Edwards left office, having lost a bid for Mikulski’s seat.
They and other primary candidates also argued that Mfume, 71, represents an older generation and that new blood is needed, noting that the average age of Maryland’s senators and representatives is 65. Carter is 55, and Rockeymoore Cummings is 49.
Neither of those arguments seemed to sway primary voters, although the next campaign will be longer, with more time to raise money and get the message out.
With Mfume competing against Republican Kimberly Klacik in the special election, Carter and Rockeymoore Cummings may try to persuade voters to support Mfume for the eight-month term but backthem for the two-year term — a potentially confusing scenario that could further complicate their paths.
“I have a hard time imagining there is going to be that degree of split ticketing,” Eberly said. “The complexity of it all is going to be somewhat off-putting.”
But in her speech to supporters Tuesday night, Carter noted that there is precedent for such a feat. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) pulled it off after John Conyers Jr. resigned over sexual harassment allegations. In August 2018, Tlaib won the Democratic nomination to compete for a full term after a rival won the party nomination to serve the final few months of Conyers’s term.
“I just want to say it’s not over,” Carter said to chants of “Jill on the Hill.”
An ardent liberal who supportedSen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 presidential race and backs Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, Carter noted she garnered nearly as much of the vote as Rockeymoore Cummings while raising far less campaign cash.
In a statement Wednesday, she said: “I know that I have the strongest and most progressive base of all of the candidates running in the April primary, and I believe that I am the best to serve the 7th congressional district in the long term. We . . . need a champion that will move the needle of progress forward instead backward.”
Rockeymoore Cummings, a policy consultant with limited ties to Baltimore who campaigned as the best person to continue her husband’s work on Capitol Hill, told supporters Tuesday night that the “glass ceiling still exists” in the 7th District.
“I want to thank someone who is not here, and that is Congressman Elijah Cummings, my beloved husband,” she said. “We fought together for a long time, and then, of course, he expected me to keep fighting. And get this, I am.”
Rivals have said Mfume benefited Tuesday from a reliable cadre of older African American female voters who associate Mfume with Elijah Cummings, his friend of 42 years.
In an interview, Mfume said he plans to embark on a “listening tour” in the next phase of the campaign. In the generation since he left Congress, the district has gotten more racially diverse, which he said he welcomes.
“Our campaign has been aimed at residents who are black and white, and Latino and Asian, old, young, obviously city, county, straight, gay — everybody we can touch who’s part of the district,” he said.
In his first stint in Congress, Mfume served on what is now known as the House Committee on Financial Services, but he said he hasn’t yet considered where he’d like to serve if he wins in April.
“I believe first thing’s first, and once we cross that bridge, I’ll give some sincere thought to [committee] assignments,” he said.
Mfume said he received congratulatory calls and messages from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Maryland’s Democratic lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Sen. Ben Cardin, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Rep. John Sarbanes and Rep. Jamie B. Raskin. Sen. Chris Van Hollen issued a statement in support.
However, lawmakers stopped short of endorsing Mfume, navigatingthe tricky dance of supporting the party’s nominee for the partial term without influencing the outcome of the primary for the full term.
Democrats are sensitive to weighing in prematurely, aides say, especially after the national party faced criticism for perceived favoritism of Hillary Clinton over Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary.
“Our delegation has been prepared to embrace, welcome, anyone who is the choice of the 7th District,” Raskin said in an interview Wednesday. “We are excited that there will be someone there to represent hundreds of thousands of people still grieving the loss of Elijah Cummings.”