Mike Rogers stood facing a crowd of 50 people in the unheated warehouse in Hanover. Pallets of packaged food had been pushed aside to make room for people, and a folding table full of green-and-white flyers and stickers sat near the entrance.

It was Jan. 6, a gray, rainy day like many others in a Maryland winter.

Rogers, a Democrat, shook hands with volunteers dressed in winter coats, laughed with fraternity brothers and made plans for a day of canvassing with his staff across the 3rd Congressional District. He pointed out the irony of campaigning that particular day — the anniversary of the date in 2021 that supporters of Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to block certification of the last presidential election.

“This is what democracy looks like,” Rogers said before his crew headed out in vans and cars. “This is what we are going to talk to people about today.”

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Rogers, one of three state delegates representing the northwest corner of Anne Arundel County, is among the candidates vying for the open seat U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, who is not seeking reelection.

And it’s not just any run for Congress. Rogers is one of nearly two dozen Democrats and Republicans running in the May 14 primary, including five state lawmakers seeking to leap from Annapolis to Washington. It is the most crowded of contests to fill four open seats in Maryland’s congressional delegation this year— an unheard-of opportunity for change and political ambition.

U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger announced last week that he won’t seek a 12th term, and U.S. Rep. David Trone is running for a Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Ben Cardin, who is retiring.

Rogers, state Sens. Sarah Elfreth and Clarence Lam, and state Dels. Mark Chang and Terri Hill all took steps ahead of the rest of the field after Sarbanes’ surprise retirement announcement in October. Hill ran for Congress previously in another district, and others have been thinking about a congressional bid for some time.

Each was ready with campaign organizations, volunteer networks and donor lists from their 2022 state elections

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“Politics is not a spectator sport,” said Hill, a surgeon who represents part of Howard County along the Interstate 95 corridor. “Everyone has to step up, and whatever you’ve been doing before, it’s not enough. So figure it out.”

For voters, here’s a guide to the emerging race.

Winning new voters

There will be about 140,000 votes up for grabs in the Democratic primary, and each state lawmaker is counting on 20,000-25,000 voters who have supported them in the past. The challenge is to win over new voters, and in a primary, that often means the most active, best-informed voters.

“I think we’re all looking to probably lock down our bases and then try to expand out further to be able to pull in those additional votes that we need,” said Lam, a Howard County physician who shares a district with Hill but also represents the northern tip of Anne Arundel.

The primary could prove decisive.

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Even after Maryland congressional district maps were redrawn following the 2020 Census — and then redrawn when a court ruled the first attempt was just too much gerrymandering — it seems likely that 3rd District voters will elect another Democrat. The district includes all of deep-blue Howard County, half of purple Anne Arundel County and a sliver of bright-red Carroll County.

That might explain the absence of a big-name Republican in the race, though there is still time before the Feb. 9 deadline to get on the primary ballot.

Incumbent advantages — and possible spoilers

Certainly, the advantages of being an incumbent — even if it’s a different elected office — suggest that one of these five will be in Washington come January. Yet there are potential spoilers.

Anne Arundel and Howard counties have both gone a long time without a homegrown member of Congress. If there is a feeling among voters in those counties that “it’s our turn now,” dividing up loyalties could open the door for a candidate whose appeal isn’t defined by geography.

That might be former U.S. Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, who squared off with the mob unleashed by Trump on Jan. 6, 2021, and recently wrote a book about the experience, “Stand My Ground: A Capitol Police Officer’s Fight for Accountability and Good Trouble After January 6th.” His name recognition alone might attract national help and win over voters looking for a political outsider.

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A crazy quilt of endorsements

The number of delegates and senators has divided Democrats already in office. Their party controls the majority of elected positions in both Howard and Anne Arundel. It’s a crazy quilt of endorsements.

Del. Shaneka Henson, who represents the same Annapolis district as Elfreth, endorsed Rogers. Del. Dana Jones, also from the state House district, backed Elfreth.

State Sen. Pam Beidle, who shares a district with Rogers and Chang, went for Elfreth, too. Del. Sandy Bartlett, the fourth lawmaker from that district, is backing Chang.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman supports Elfreth, while County Council Chair Pete Smith endorsed Rogers. So does Anne Arundel County Sheriff Everett Sesker.

“When you have that many people who are good at what they do, for me the decision making had to come down to something different,” said Henson, who was at Rogers’ recent event to lead a team of volunteers to Annapolis. “What person has supported me the most, and what person do I want to put my support behind?”

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Most of these experienced candidates estimate their campaigns will cost $1.5-$2 million, although some predicted it would be far less. With campaign finance reports out in the coming days, you can look for evidence of who is cashing in on those connections best.

Historic firsts

Terri Hill and Mike Rogers are Black, and Hill talks easily about her involvement in civil rights causes. Chang and Lam are Asian American; if one of them wins, it would be a historic first for Maryland.

If either Elfreth or Hill wins, they could be the first female member of the state’s congressional delegation since Donna Edwards gave up her seat in the House of Representatives to run unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2016. Elfreth is a well-known environmental champion in the state legislature, while Rogers is a retired Army colonel who often focuses on veterans issues.

Del. Mark Chang of Glen Burnie talks about his campaign for Congress in the 3rd District. He sees the Asian American population in Howard and Anne Arundel counties as a natural constituency, given his own story as a child of immigrants.
Del. Mark Chang of Glen Burnie talks about his campaign for Congress in Maryland's 3rd District. He sees the Asian American population in Howard and Anne Arundel counties as a natural constituency, given his own story as a child of immigrants. (Rick Hutzell)

Chang, a former Republican who changed parties more than a decade ago, sees his story as a child of Korean immigrants ascompelling. Asian Americans, largely Koreans, represent about 4% of the population in Howard and Anne Arundel.

He sees his voters as more than that: “The Asian American community, Korean American community and also those members of our community who come from economically diverse backgrounds, work two jobs or who are just trying to put food on the table or have lights on. People who aren’t often able to engage and who are often overlooked.”

Differences and challenges

There are other differentiations. Elfreth, in her second term in the state Senate, is the most prolific legislator. As a lawmaker from a politically divided county, she considers herself a pragmatist who works across the aisle. That may provide a boost in Anne Arundel, but not as much in Howard, where the most dedicated Democrats can be expected to turn out.

What may prove most challenging for these candidates is getting out across the district while meeting the demands of the 90-day legislative session in Annapolis. That means finding the time and the money to build relationships in parts of the district where voters don’t know a candidate or where an incumbent lawmaker is not on the ballot.

“It’s gonna be a competitive race, and the folks who are going to be most competitive, we’re going to have the resources to talk to many voters and then have a message and experience that resonates with voters,” Elfreth said. “I think I have both of those things.”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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