Cummings at the crossroads

Rep. Elijah Cummings is at a political crossroads.

The 64-year-old Maryland Democrat is mulling whether to run for the Senate seat soon to be vacated by Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski who will not seek reelection in 2016 after nearly 30 years in office.

The rare open Maryland Senate seat could be Cummings’ last chance to move to the upper chamber. If he were to enter the race, early polling shows that he’d be the favorite.

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Cummings has said an announcement would come at some point after Thursday’s Benghazi committee hearing. Allies say he has refused to discuss his political future in the weeks leading up to the event.

On Friday, running on fumes after the marathon session, a worn-out Cummings said he wasn’t ready yet to address the matter.

“I’m not answering anything about the Senate run right now,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I’m thoroughly exhausted from Benghazi — thoroughly — and I want to spend some time with my wife.”

Cummings’ performance as Hillary Clinton’s fiercest defender at the Benghazi hearing has intensified speculation over his future.

There, Cummings showcased the influence he wields in the House as the last line of defense between Republicans and the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

He was a viral video sensation, at times taking the lead on matters that were in Clinton’s best interests to avoid, and flipping the switch from righteous anger to emotional appeals when the moment called.

At the end of the long day, Democrats credited Cummings with successfully keeping Clinton above the political fray in what many believe could be a turning point for her campaign.

The performance earned him rave reviews from his fellow lawmakers.

“He made us very proud yesterday,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told reporters. “He was informed. He was present and he was an inspiration. It was a very, very impressive effort."

The showing has also ramped-up speculation around a potential Senate run.

“We would welcome him in the United States Senate,” said McCaskill, who is staying neutral in the primary race.

If Cummings were to enter the race, a poll released last week found that he’d have double-digit leads over two other House Democrats, Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards.

Van Hollen and Edwards have been slugging it out for months in what is lining up to be a protracted and divisive primary battle.

“Elijah would the prohibitive front-runner,” declared Dave Heller, a close political confidante of Cummings. “If he gets in, the race is his to lose.”

Cummings’s early strength stems from widespread name recognition in his hometown of Baltimore, and the deep reservoir of respect he commands among the Democratic establishment.

Cummings has spent decades in Maryland politics, rising to become the first African-American Speaker Pro-Tempore in the state House of Delegates before moving on to his nearly two-decades long career in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He was a visible presence working on behalf of President Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, and has raised his national profile as a regular on the cable news and Sunday morning network political shows.

Cummings’s Benghazi panel effort was the latest example of him rising to meet a high-stakes political moment when the lights shined brightest.

He similarly played the foil to former Oversight chairman Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) 2013-14 investigation into the botched ObamaCare rollout.

Earlier this year, he memorably marched with a bullhorn through the streets of Baltimore urging protesters to return home during the Freddie Gray riots.

Still, Cummings’s propensity to lead is also why many believe he will remain in the House.

Democrats view him as the indispensable and irreplaceable lynchpin of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where liberals expect the ranking member will be tasked with defending the legacies of Clinton and Obama for years to come.

"When he came on [to the committee] my spirits just lifted because he was such a breath of fresh air," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told reporters. "I really felt that there was a presence that was important on that committee."

That’s the rub for Cummings, who has expressed reservations to those close to him about a Senate run.

He must weigh whether to remain in the House, where he has achieved elder statesman status, or enter a tough primary with the upshot of becoming a junior member of the Senate.

“In speaking to him, he seemed very resolved that he wanted to stay serving people of the 7th district,” said Rev. Jamal Bryant, a Maryland Democratic activist who earlier this year announced his candidacy for Cummings’ House seat, but pulled out last month after talking it over with Cummings.

“I think with his senior ranking in the House, that to go to the Senate, where he’d immediately be a freshman with less political standing – he’d be starting over in his 60s,” said Bryant. “I think he’s in that season where he’s looking more at his legacy and what that means, rather than looking to press reset.”

Of course, even with an early lead in the polls, a victory in the Democratic Senate primary would be no sure thing.

Van Hollen has a big fundraising advantage. He raised nearly $1 million last quarter and ended with more than $4 million in the bank.

Cummings, meanwhile, raised only $135,000 and finished with less than $1 million in the bank. That’s a sign Cummings has not been ramping up in preparation for a run, Maryland Democrats say.

“We haven’t seen the kinds of organizational movement you’d expect from a candidate who is on the brink of a Senate run,” said strategist Andrew Feldman. “We’re pretty deep into the 2016 cycle at this point and a lot of the campaign talent has been picked up by the presidential campaigns and other Senate races.”
 
Furthermore, Van Hollen, the ranking member on the Budget Committee and former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has galvanized the Democratic establishment, picking up endorsements from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and state level lawmakers, as well as many labor and business groups.

He just recently began dipping into his war chest, releasing his second TV ad of the cycle on Thursday. 

And Edwards, an African-American woman, has the backing of national progressive groups like Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

EMILY’s List, the deep-pocketed group that seeks to elect pro-abortion rights women, is also in Edwards’s corner, and could spend millions on the race.

That could help Edwards close the fundraising gap with Van Hollen. She raised $638,000 in the third quarter, but finished with only about half that amount in cash-on-hand.

“In the end, I don’t think he does it,” one Maryland state delegate told The Hill. “For goodness sakes, it’s almost November.” 

The delegate noted that even if Cummings passed on the Senate race, that there will be a vulnerable Republican running for reelection as governor in 2018.

Said Feinstein: "Whatever he does, I would be there to help him."

Julian Hattem and Jordain Carney contributed.