Who from Howard or Anne Arundel counties will represent us in Congress?

It’s been decades since anyone who actually lived here represented us on Capitol Hill.

The next Congress may be different after the surprise retirement announcement by 3rd District Rep. John Sarbanes. He figured nine terms was quite enough time making the commute from his Baltimore County home to the thoroughly dysfunctional House of Representatives, a body whose elections he spent years trying to reform.

The 3rd District was one of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation until the last election, snaking around four counties and the city from Towson to Silver Spring. But the legislature complied with a court order to make it one of the most compact districts in the state, combining all of Howard County with the neighboring half of Anne Arundel County.

Opportunity of an open seat

An open congressional seat is a relatively rare opportunity in Maryland for other electeds to move up the political food chain. Every two years, voters here are usually presented with the choice of a longtime incumbent with immense advantages in visibility and funding versus some lesser known and underfunded opponent.

An open seat in a presidential election year is an even more attractive opportunity for state and local officials who are elected for four-year terms in nonpresidential years. They can run for Congress next year without giving up their positions.

There are likely to be a lot of 3rd District candidates, as the open seat in the 6th Congressional District shows. Its current representative, David Trone, is running for the U.S. Senate. Nine Democrats and seven Republicans have filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to campaign for the seat, though not all have filed to get on the ballot with the state elections board. Candidates have until Feb. 9 to file; the primary is on May 14. That is a lot of time for candidates to emerge, though five months is not a lot of time to mount a serious congressional campaign where few candidates are well known.

Ball opts out

It was a bit of a surprise when Howard County Executive Calvin Ball ruled himself out of the race last month. He had obvious reasons to join the contest and obvious advantages if he did.

His obvious reason to run is that the two-term executive is just that — limited to two terms. He will be out of a job in December 2026.

His obvious advantages are that he has won two countywide elections by wide margins and is probably the best known of the declared and potential candidates.

That being said, none of the candidates, declared or potential, is well-known outside their own jurisdictions.

Overcoming that lack of visibility will require lots of money in a fragmented media market. No medium is guaranteed to reach all voters in a congressional race, except for direct mail if it isn’t immediately tossed in the recycling bin.

To raise that money to reach the electorate, a candidate must follow very different rules in congressional races than state and local candidates in Maryland do. For instance, candidates running for state and local office here can accept money from businesses and corporations. That’s prohibited under federal campaign law. Even if they have substantial money in their state campaign accounts, federal law says none of that money can be used in a congressional race.

Three women announce

Sen. Sarah Elfreth

Of the declared candidates, state Sen. Sarah Elfreth of Annapolis has the most money in her campaign treasury with $112,869 at the beginning of the year. That amount certainly attests to the fundraising abilities of Elfreth. At 35 and in her second term, she is still the youngest member of the state Senate and the youngest woman ever to serve there. She is bright, hardworking and progressive with strong emphasis and achievements on environmental issues. She chairs the Senate budget Subcommittee on Public Safety, Transportation and the Environment and is the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on the Chesapeake & Atlantic Coastal Bays Critical Area and the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Program Open Space & Agricultural Land Preservation.

Maryland state senators historically have a track record of winning congressional races. Four of Maryland’s 10 members of Congress served in the state Senate.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary

Howard County Dels. Vanessa Atterbeary and Terri Hill have also announced they are running. Atterbeary is chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, one of the top positions at the State House. That may give her an edge with fundraising, but it also means that she, like Elfreth, is one of the busiest members of the General Assembly. Hill, a three-term delegate and a plastic surgeon, has both her delegate seat and medical practice to juggle for the election. Running for Congress during the legislative session will be a challenge for all.

Del. Terri Hill

If gender and race are factors in a Democratic primary, as they often are, Democrats may be looking to add a woman to all-male congressional delegation. And they may choose a Black woman, like Atterbeary or Hill, to head to Congress with Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, who is running for the U.S. Senate against Trone.

The district registration favors Democrats over Republicans, though Republican lawyer and former talk-show host Yuripzy Morgan did get 40% of the vote against Sarbanes last year, a major achievement for any Republican against a Democratic incumbent. Morgan has yet to decide if she will run again.

Then again, some wealthy or celebrity candidate could jump into the race with enough money to counter elected experience, as Trone did in winning his current congressional seat. The Democratic primary will likely determine the winner of the seat. Maryland’s closed primary system means that the majority of the 3rd District’s registered voters — Republicans and independents — will simply get to affirm the choice by a minority of Democrats in a multicandidate race.