Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando enters Maryland U.S. Senate race

Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando (D - At-Large) is the first candidate to enter the race to fill outgoing Maryland U.S. Senator Ben Cardin's seat. Jawando, an author and veteran of the Barack Obama administration, had previously run for U.S. Congress before winning his council seat in 2018. While the race for the coveted seat is expected to draw many Democratic entrants, Jawando caught his potential rivals flatfooted Tuesday, when he formally announced his campaign one day after Cardin announced he would not seek reelection in 2024. Despite many signs and rumors that Cardin would bow out, only Jawando had a campaign and announcement video immediately prepared to go, getting a jump on fundraising and media attention.

Jawando centered his announcement on disputing the idea that "if some people get ahead, everyone else has to be left behind." He promised to run on the goal of bringing a "shared prosperity" to all Marylanders. Jawando cited some of the issues he has worked on during his four-and-a-half years on the County Council, including sponsoring a rent stabilization bill that would be more restrictive to rent increases than a competing Council bill supported by some of his colleagues, and his high-profile campaign for criminal justice and policing reforms.

Entering the race just months after being reelected to a second term on the Council, Jawando will be one of the most-intriguing candidates to watch. His fate will largely be decided by what the Democratic electorate is seeking in this election cycle. Will the race follow the same path as the year when Chris Van Hollen won his U.S. Senate seat, with deference to the veteran, center-left, well-financed politician whose "turn" it is for promotion to the next-highest seat, at the expense of younger, more-progressive candidates of color?

If so, U.S. Congressman David Trone (D - 6th District) will be in the driver's seat. He is expected by many political observers to enter the Senate race, and the Total Wine founder is known above all else for his willingness to spend vast sums of his personal fortune. As a hefty fundraiser for national Democrats, Trone will have many a boldfaced name to campaign for him. And with a centrist profile, he has repeatedly defeated Republicans in the 6th, something the Democratic establishment would like in a state where a moderate Republican can be competitive in a statewide race.

But let's not forget that former Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot was a similar, formidable centrist at the starting line of the 2022 gubernatorial race. He had the highest statewide profile, the biggest fundraising potential, and after building a bipartisan image with friend Gov. Larry Hogan (R) over eight years, was widely expected to easily clinch the primary and general election victories.

Virtually no one had heard of Wes Moore at that time. A young, bestselling author with no experience in public office, Moore quickly garned attention, straw poll victories, and - soon thereafter - money and big name endorsements across the state. It turned out that Democratic primary voters were looking for a fresh face, and an inspiring message, not the "safe" candidate whose turn it was next.

Of course, Moore brought a wealth of experience in international finance, and a Hollywood-ready resume of overcoming personal setbacks and service to his country as a combat veteran. The thin presidential bench national Democrats are facing in coming election cycles helped Moore immensely, too, as he has instantly given hope to many that they have another Obama on their hands. Like Jawando, Moore was also in the Obama administration orbit that has launched so many Democratic candidates to election victory in recent years. 

Jawando faces a number of challenges that Moore did not, however. Moore did not have a voting record in public office, allowing him to be a blank slate to supporters, and to never get too specific in his agenda prior to being sworn in as governor. Jawando has drawn much criticism from Republicans and moderate Democratic and unaffiliated voters for what they view his sustained attacks on law enforcement. His established friendship with Moore could be a potential edge, but would Moore endorse Jawando over more-powerful Democratic rivals? And can Moore ignore the fact that, were Jawando to win, the councilman would be on an Obama-like trajectory to run for the White House in 2028, the same year many expect Moore to be a frontrunner in the presidential race, and in the same lane as Moore?

One certainty: no candidate is going to win this Senate seat in a cakewalk. Everyone knows that if a Democrat wins the seat, it will essentially be his or hers for life. Even a governor can only serve two terms in Maryland. This is literally the opportunity of a lifetime, and it won't come again until Van Hollen retires, which could be decades from now.

Every Democratic official with any profile in the state has to be considering a run. Congressman Jamie Raskin (D - 8th District) had long been considered the frontrunner for this Senate seat. He has a passionate following among progressive Democrats that allowed him to defeat Big Money Trone to win his seat. The only uncertainty for Raskin would be if he is too progressive for a statewide race. Although he has announced his cancer is in remission, he also acknowledged that the treatments have left him exhausted, and he has to weigh whether or not he is ready to enter a tough statewide race at this moment - versus an easy reelection to his current seat in Congress, with his desirable committee assignments placing him in a powerful position if Democrats win back the House next year.

Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks is expected to enter the Senate race. Her hiring of former Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan's campaign manager suggests she may be positioning herself as a more moderate candidate. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski could be a formidable entry, as well, with the Baltimore machine and appeal to younger voters among his advantages.

The Republican side of the race at this hour can only be described by one word: bleak. Former Gov. Larry Hogan said yesterday that even his wife is begging him to run for the Senate seat, but once again, professed to have no interest in serving on Capitol Hill. Trone and Olszewski would like nothing more than for Hogan to enter the race, as Democrats would be under pressure to shift to the center.

If the Republican bench for the 2026 gubernatorial race sends shivers down the GOP establishment's spine, be sure you have smelling salts in hand before querying them about the GOP U.S. Senate bench. Hogan and former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele are the only Republicans capable of running a competitive race if the election were held today, and Steele lost running for this seat in 2006, albeit in the destructive, radioactive shadow of George W. Bush. 

One has to wonder if this is Hogan's last thumbing of the nose at his own party. Notorious for failing to support Maryland GOP candidates in the 2018 and 2022 elections, Hogan is now the one man standing between possible victory and sure defeat for the party in the U.S. Senate race. The irony is that Hogan has a far better chance of winning the Senate seat than the White House, whether that be as a Republican or No Labels party nominee. 

Were there to be no Donald Trump-aligned candidate in the race, Hogan protege Kelly Schulz might have a chance, having received some statewide exposure during her unsuccessful race for governor last year. Schulz fell victim to GOP voters' preference for the Trump-endorsed Dan Cox - but also to her patron Hogan's presidential ambitions. When Hogan should have been barnstorming the state with Schulz in the final weeks of the primary race, he was out-of-state campaigning for president. But the Senate question may be moot for Schulz, as some pundits are noting she could be a formidable candidate for Trone's congressional seat if he pursues the Senate race.

Beyond Hogan, there is mostly wishful thinking. The Cal Ripken/Pat Sajak rumors are as predictable at the start of election cycles as trying Rex Chapman at point guard was once a fixture of Washington Januaries. Dan Bongino? He would surely appeal to the Trumpist base in Maryland, but would find it challenging to win the general election after his outspoken support of The Donald in recent years. 

Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich would be highly-qualified for the office, and is more popular among Maryland Republicans than Hogan. Does he want to take on a brutal campaign like this? 

It's telling that even articles about Hogan declining to run don't mention other possible GOP candidates besides Steele. There's no getting around the fact that the Maryland GOP has failed to promote and elevate some of the most promising potential candidates in the party, particularly those who are female and non-white. Some have since left politics - or the state entirely, for redder pastures elsewhere. 

The only hope for the GOP, aside from Hogan coming to his senses and entering the race, is for a charismatic and reasonably-wealthy outsider to emerge from nowhere. There's a strong chance the economy could be in recession or worse by next year. A slow-motion, multicar pileup of failing banks appears to be in the realm of possibility, as are higher gas prices and exhaustion over a Ukraine war that seems to be designed to go on for years to the financial advantage of defense firms, while hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians die on both sides in the meantime.

For now, Will Jawando is coming off as the best-organized of the potential candidates, if nothing else. He doesn't even have to worry about claiming a lane at the moment, as aside from socialist Jerome Segal, he has the entire road to himself. While the other big name Democrats scramble to assemble their campaigns and launch events, Jawando can continue to vacuum up TV time and pundit chatter. 

Photo courtesy Will Jawando for Maryland

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