Could a Republican Win Mikulski's Senate Seat?

Could a Republican Win Mikulski's Senate Seat?
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Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland surprised many observers yesterday by announcing that she would not seek a sixth term. This has set off a frenzy of speculation as to who her likely successor will be.  Given that a Senate seat hasn’t come open in Maryland in a decade (and two decades before that one), there will likely be a crowded field.

So it isn’t surprising that there is a lengthy list of high-profile Democrats considering a bid.  Former Gov. Martin O'Malley took himself out of the running Tuesday, but his lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown, along with Reps. John Delaney and Dutch Ruppersberger are publicly mulling a try for the seat, while Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Rep. Chris Van Hollen are also considering runs. Three of the four other representatives have been mentioned (the fourth, Steny Hoyer, seems unlikely to give up his position as the House minority whip), as have county executives for two major suburban counties in the state (among many others).

The Republican bench is narrower.  There’s only one GOP representative in the state (Andy Harris, representing the Eastern Shore), who doesn’t seem interested in running. Aside from the current governor and lieutenant governor, Republicans have only won a single statewide contest since 1980: Robert Ehrlich and Michael Steele snuck into the governor’s mansion in 2002. Ehrlich and Ben Carson, the two names atop the GOP wish list, also seem uninterested in running. That leaves the Republicans with a decidedly weaker bench of county executives and state house delegates.

Could a Republican win the general election? Probably not. Maryland is something of a city-state, with most of its population living in urban and suburban areas around D.C. or Baltimore. Many of these voters are socially liberal, depend on the federal government for their livelihoods, and resist GOP anti-government rhetoric. Overall, this was Obama’s fifth-best state in 2012, giving the president a larger victory margin than Massachusetts or California.

It hasn’t elected a Republican senator since 1980, and hasn’t elected a Republican senator who might fit in with today’s more solidly conservative GOP caucus since 1970 (that senator, J. Glenn Beall Jr., lost by 18 points in 1976 to Paul Sarbanes).  Michael Steele was something of a perfect GOP candidate in 2006, who ran a clever campaign against a mediocre Democrat, yet still lost by 11 points.  He might have won in a good GOP year, but he wouldn’t have had much room for error.

The best showing for a Republican in a presidential year was George W. Bush’s 13-point loss to John Kerry in 2004.  The two GOP statewide wins in the past 30 years came in midterm elections where the party fared well nationally, and when Democratic turnout was down somewhat. Even then, those wins required the emergence of an issue matrix that aligned the interests of the state’s relatively small conservative base with moderate suburbanites.

So for a Republican to win, they would probably need a strong candidate, a great national environment, and a set of issues that causes the rural and suburban votes to coalesce. It isn’t impossible, but you’d have to give me extremely good odds before I’d think about taking the bet.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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