Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland — the longest serving woman in Congress who made a name for herself as a tough-as-nails lawmaker and strong supporter of women’s issues — announced on Monday her plans to retire.
At a news conference, the 78-year-old Democrat and former social worker said she would not seek reelection at the end of her term in 2016, explaining that she’d rather spend the next two years passing meaningful legislation for her constituents instead of fundraising and hitting the campaign trail.
“I really want to make sure they have a future, that they have a job, that they have promise and opportunity,” she said. Mikulski added that “there’s nothing gloomy about this announcement. There’s no health problem. I’m not frustrated with the Senate … I want to give 120% of my time focused on my constituents.”
Mikulski delivered the news from the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore, close to where she said her mother and father once owned a neighborhood grocery store. She described how every morning growing up her parents would open the doors to their business and say “Good morning, how can I help you?” Mikulski said she was raised with that same “sense of service.”
Mikulski, nicknamed “Dean of the Senate,” began serving in the upper chamber of Congress in 1987 after a decade in the House of Representatives.
The lawmaker — who had served as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee until the recent GOP takeover — said she will spend the remainder of her term focusing on a number of issues, including gender wage equality, making college more affordable, and revisiting the country’s tax code.
Mikulski’s announcement opens the floodgates for a number of Democrats who could run for her seat in the blue-leaning state. Names that have been floated include House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Rep. Donna Edwards and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — who is also considering a run for president.
At the news conference, Mikulski did not back any particular potential candidate, only saying that she’ll support the Democratic nominee. “Maryland has a lot of talent and they’ll be telling you about in the next 10 minutes,” she joked.
The Republican Party is also are eyeing the seat. As GOP Larry Hogan’s gubernatorial win in the heavily Democratic state showed last year, Republicans can be successful in the Old Line State. Andrea Bozek, a spokesperson for The National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement following Mikulski’s announcement, “After winning the governor’s race in 2014, there’s no question that an open Senate seat in Maryland instantly becomes a top pickup opportunity for Republicans. While Democrats get ready for a bloody primary, we will have a top recruit waiting for whoever emerges.”
During her tenure, Mikulski earned a reputation as lawmaker who pushed for legislation in particular to better the lives of women. She has been a strong advocate of equal pay for women and sponsored the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women employees to sue over pay discrimination. It was the first bill President Barack Obama signed into law. She also spearheaded an amendment to the Affordable Care Act for free preventative health screenings, including mammograms, and has worked to expand childcare for low-income families.
At the news conference, Mikulski noted that she was the first Democratic woman senator elected in her own right. “Though I was the first, I didn’t want to be the only. I am so excited there are now 20 women in the U.S. Senate.”
In terms of what’s next for Mikulski, the lawmaker said she wasn’t quite sure. “I haven’t thought that far,” she said, adding “This was a very big decision.”
In deep blue Maryland, senators are often said to have seats for life, so Mikulski’s retirement creates a rare opportunity for advancement for the deep bench of Democrats in the state who have been kept out of the state’s top three jobs for years.
Democrats familiar with Maryland politics predict a crowded field, where a victor may emerge from a Democratic primary with fewer than 30% of the vote. “Everybody and their mother is going to run,” said one operative, who was not authorized to speak with the press.
O’Malley looms largest over the field, as he’s already won statewide twice and invested in a presidential political organization, which could be quickly retooled for a Senate bid. But the former governor views himself as an executive at heart and after eight years running the state and another eight running its largest city, junior senator may not be a good fit. Still, with a presidential bid in 2016 looking like a steep climb, and no current office to his name, he might opt to run for Senate and then run for president down the line. It may also be a chance to reclaim his legacy, which was imperiled in 2014 when the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate ran from O’Malley’s record and lost.
Rep. John Delaney may not be a household name, but he’s worth several hundred million dollars and is the only former CEO of a publicly traded company in Congress. His business background in a field of career politicians and – more importantly – his ability to vastly outspend challengers makes him formidable. And he’s already exploring a Senate run.
Rep. John Sarbanes, on the other hand, is a household name in Maryland, thanks to the legacy of his beloved father, former Sen. Paul Sarbanes, the longest serving senator in Maryland history. The congressman also represents the “holy seat” – Maryland’s Third Congressional District. The heavily gerrymandered district stretches from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to Annapolis to parts of Baltimore, giving its holder access to all of the major population centers, and many of its political groups, labor unions, and civic organizations. The last three people to occupy the seat, including Sarbanes’ father and Mikulski, have become senators.
Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Steny Hoyer are seen as less likely to run, since they are already both well positioned in the House and would face tough contests for the Senate seat.
If Maryland Democrats prefer to nominate a woman or person of color, they will have plenty of options. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is African-American, has gained some national attention, and is reportedly seriously considering a run. Prince Georges County Executive Rushern Baker, who is black, has received positive reviews leading one of the state’s largest population centers, and may soon notch a major victory in bringing the new FBI headquarters to the county.
Rep. Donna Edwards is seen as almost certain to run and could win favor among progressives and African-Americans, but fundraising is seen as a weakness. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who has served almost 20 years in Congress, has a strong power base in Baltimore would be one of the only major candidates from city, while most of the other candidates are from the Washington, D.C. suburbs.
State Rep. Heather Mizeur, who ran for governor in 2014, is said to also be eyeing a bid, as is Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who is well liked in Democratic circles despite being on the losing gubernatorial ticket.
A wild card could be Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a former Montgomery County Council member and the state secretary of labor under O’Malley. Perez is speaking in Baltimore next week to 150 civic leaders. He’s been preparing for possible gubernatorial run, but may be better cut out for the Senate, given his deep affiliation with federal policy.
The race could attract a plethora of other candidates as well, including statewide elected officials like Attorney General Doug Gansler. Maryland state offices are elected in midterm years, so they could run for Mikulski’s seat in 2016 without much consequence.
One of the few Democrats who has already ruled himself out is Comptroller Peter Franchot, who also decided against a gubernatorial run in 2014. He won reelection with 63% of the vote, making him one of the state’s more popular politicians and a potential kingmaker in the Senate race.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Franchot ran for governor in 2014.