If Martin O’Malley harbors any doubts about running for president against Hillary Rodham Clinton, he now has a viable alternative.
For more than a year, the former Maryland governor has explored what looks today to be a longshot bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2016. A second option arrived Monday when Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski announced plans to retire.
If O’Malley is intent on returning to elected office, he now faces a choice between a Senate campaign in which he’d be an early favorite, and a presidential bid he would begin as a significant underdog, should Clinton enter the race as is widely expected.
The ex-governor’s team declined to engage in such talk Monday. His spokeswoman, Lis Smith, said it was “a day to reflect on Senator Mikulski’s service to the people of Maryland, not engage in political speculation.”
But the prospect of running for an open Senate seat in a state where Democrats have a 2-to-1 edge among registered voters is sure to be tempting for O’Malley, who completed his final term as governor in January.
“It’s got to be something that he would look at,” said former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, an O’Malley ally.
Little known outside his home state, O’Malley has yet to gain much traction in a hypothetical matchup against Clinton, who has a network of super PACs already working on her behalf and much of the party’s establishment eagerly waiting for her to announce her candidacy. Those pining for someone other than Clinton have largely focused their longing not on O’Malley, but Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — who tells everyone who asks she isn’t running.
O’Malley has deep ties to Mikulski. While in law school, he served as field director on her first Senate campaign in 1986 and his mother Barbara has worked as a receptionist in Mikulski’s Washington office since 1987. Yet the retiring senator has already endorsed Clinton.
“He’s in a tough position,” said Dan Calegari, a New Hampshire Democratic activist who first met O’Malley in 1983 when both worked on Sen. Gary Hart’s presidential campaign. Hart himself said Monday the open Senate seat gives O’Malley “flexibility and a new option.”
O’Malley allies said the former governor has always enjoyed the role of executive, having served as Baltimore’s mayor for seven years before becoming governor in 2007. He has shown little interest in the past in serving in Congress.
He also wouldn’t waltz into the Senate. His political reputation took a hit in the November elections, when Republican Larry Hogan defeated his hand-picked choice to replace him in Annapolis. A Democratic primary could also attract several members of Maryland’s congressional delegation, as well as Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a former Montgomery County, Md., council member and O’Malley appointee.
O’Malley’s biggest potential rival is Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, although they are unlikely to run against each other in a primary.
“It’s going to be a very competitive field,” said Oscar Ramirez, a former vice chair of the state Democratic party. “There is going to be an incentive for a candidate to announce earlier rather than later to build support as soon as you can.”
Prior to Mikulski’s announcement, O’Malley had said he would make a final decision on a presidential campaign this spring. He is scheduled to headline fundraisers and appearances in New Hampshire on Friday and Saturday and has separate trips to Iowa planned for March and April.
During an appearance in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Saturday, he took a veiled shot at Clinton, warning Democrats that more “triangulation” would not be a successful strategy for the party. And he suggested large financial institutions should be broken up if they pose a threat to the American economy, something Warren has called for.
“People want to see new faces. There’s a certain amount of Clinton fatigue,” Calegari said. “They’ve been around for 30 years now. Quite honestly, I think if Martin decides to get in the race he will surprise some people.”
Even as an underdog, there is a place for O’Malley in the presidential race, Hart said.
“I am not in favor of coronations and I’m certainly not in favor of the preordination of two families in America who can govern,” Hart said. “I think it would be healthy for the Democratic party to have competition.”