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The special election to fill Rep. Elijah Cummings’s seat, explained

Cummings’s friends, allies, and family all want to fill his seat.

Rep. Elijah Cummings in his Capitol Hill office in November 2018.
Salwan Georges/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

The February 4 special primary election to fill the late Rep. Elijah Cummings’s congressional seat is in full swing, with 32 candidates in the race for Maryland’s Seventh District: 24 Democrats and eight Republicans.

Cummings won the seat in 1996 and held it until his death in 2019. Now, his friends, allies, and family members are battling one another for the position.

The race is an unusual one, and not just because of the number of candidates running. It presents what could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to represent the district in Washington — Cummings held the seat for 24 years — and given that 81 percent of the district’s registered voters are Democrats, any Democratic candidate who wins the primary has essentially won the general election as well.

There are a few Democratic candidates considered to be the frontrunners, mainly based on their fundraising numbers, field operations, name recognition — or all three.

Cummings’s widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, is well known in the district both for being the lawmaker’s partner and from her stint as the chair of Maryland’s Democratic Party. Kweisi Mfume once held the seat; he left the House in 1996 in order to lead the NAACP.

But there are some fresher faces worth watching as well, including University of Baltimore professor F. Michael Higginbotham — who’s running a well-funded campaign thanks to loaning himself more than half a million dollars — and state lawmakers Del. Terri Hill and Sen. Jill Carter.

A wrinkle in all this is that Tuesday’s contest is a primary for a special election to be held April 28, the same day the regular primary will be held for November’s congressional race. The filing deadline for April’s primary was in January — that is, before the special primary election. This means whichever Democrat wins on Tuesday will have to face all 23 candidates they’ve just defeated in a second primary in order to keep the seat for the full term at stake in November.

And given that the district is safely Democratic, Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, told Vox there’s no incentive for the candidates who lose Tuesday to suspend their campaigns in the name of party unity.

“There’s not really any indication at this point that the person who wins the special election, that the other people would then drop out and coalesce behind them,” Kromer said.

So on Wednesday, we’ll know who will finish out Cummings’s term. But we won’t know for sure whether they’ll get to stay in Washington for the 117th Congress until April — and given what we know about the current state of the race, it’s possible one candidate may win the special election in April and another gets the seat in November.

We know almost nothing about this race

Normally, at this point in a crowded race — even a close one like the 2020 Democratic primary — we would have some frontrunners.

But in the Maryland Seventh District race, it’s really hard to tell who’s doing well and who isn’t, because there’s been no public polling (other than an unscientific online poll).

“We’re all kind of flying blind here,” Sophia Silbergeld, director of strategic partnerships at Adeo Advocacy, a Baltimore public affairs firm, told Vox.

To try to get a grasp on who the frontrunners are, experts have looked at campaign finance filings in order to see which candidates have done the best with fundraising, and have suggested that — as with most quick elections, down-ballot races, and other less publicized contests — the candidates voters are already most familiar with will have an advantage.

“Name recognition matters,” Kromer said. “It’s a big deal right now, especially for the special election, because the runway was just so short.”

Since Cummings’s death in October, candidates have had around three months to introduce themselves to voters. The list of Democrats running is long:

  • T. Dan Baker
  • Talmadge Branch
  • Alicia D. Brown
  • Anthony Carter Sr.
  • Jill Carter
  • Matko Lee Chullin III
  • Jay Fred Cohen
  • Nathaniel M. Costley Sr.
  • Maya Rockeymoore Cummings
  • Jermyn Davidson
  • Darryl Gonzalez
  • Mark Steven Gosnell
  • Leslie E. Grant
  • Dan Hiegel
  • F. Michael Higginbotham
  • Terri Hill
  • Jay Jalisi
  • Paul V. Konka
  • Kweisi Mfume
  • Adrian Petrus
  • Saafir A. Rabb
  • Charles U. Smith
  • Harry Spikes
  • Charles Stokes

As is the list of Republican candidates. Perhaps the most notable of these is Kimberly Klacik, given she created the viral videos about Baltimore that led President Donald Trump to attack Cummings as a “brutal bully” representing a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” Klacik has promised to be “a stronger voice against socialism and the Squad,” a group of four female progressive lawmakers, if she were to win. But again, there’s virtually no chance of a Republican winning the seat.

The Democrats Kromer and Silbergeld believe to be in the top tier are those with high name recognition, and one political newcomer with strong legal ties and a will to spend his own money liberally. For the purposes of simplicity, we’ll focus on the following five.

Two familiar names could be the race’s frontrunners

Perhaps the best-known candidates outside of the district are 71-year-old former Rep. Kweisi Mfume and 49-year-old former Maryland Democratic Party chair Maya Rockeymoore Cummings. And because they are also widely known in the district — Mfume held the Seventh District seat before Cummings, while Rockeymoore Cummings briefly ran for governor and is Cummings’s widow — many observers consider them the frontrunners.

Mfume left the seat vacant when he became the president and CEO of the NAACP in 1996. He ran that organization until 2004 and was praised upon his exit.

However, reporting by the Baltimore Sun’s Kevin Rector and Paul McCardell uncovered records that showed Mfume was voted out of the organization over concerns of a sexual harassment allegation and other critiques about Mfume’s judgment. Those critiques included concerns that Mfume rewarded sexual partners with promotions and raises, and punished those who did not respond warmly to his advances.

Mfume has denied being asked to leave, and all other allegations, claiming his only wrongdoing was dating a colleague, something he’s referred to as a “boneheaded mistake.”

“I was a single man who, on the job, dated a single woman for about six months,” he told QC Roll Call. “There were, I think, one or two other people who thought, ‘Maybe he should have been dating me.’”

As a candidate, Mfume has stressed that he’s learned from that experience, and the allegations don’t seem to have hurt his fundraising. In fact, he’s raised the most, bringing in $260,620.

He has largely focused on reminding voters he’s held the job before and is running on that record, telling the Baltimore Sun, “I am the only candidate in this race who is proven, tested, and ready to go to work in Congress on day one.”

While Mfume argues he ought to be next District 7 Congress member because of his experience, Rockeymoore Cummings says voters ought to back her because Cummings told her that’s what he wanted: “That was a discussion we had some months ago,” she told the Baltimore Sun.

Like Mfume, she has been a very strong fundraiser, raising $208,008. And were she — or any of the other Democratic women candidates — to be elected, she would become the only woman in Maryland’s congressional delegation.

Also like Mfume, Rockeymoore Cummings’s last role is the source of some controversy: The Washington Post’s Erin Cox reports her tenure as chair of the Maryland Democratic Party put the organization in dire financial straits, a charge the former chair dismissed, arguing that increasing spending was necessary to build “a party that could engage with voters year-round.” She has also faced concerns over the tax structure of her nonprofit, critiques she has dismissed as “lies.”

These sorts of scandals are unlikely to matter to voters, however, at least in the short term, Kromer said.

“Those issues may not completely permeate the consciousness of the voters in this special election,” the director said. “But I think those issues may be brought to the forefront in the time between February and April.”

In fact, only one candidate has really discussed them at all: political newcomer F. Michael Higginbotham.

A professor with a large war chest could be the race’s dark horse

Higginbotham, a 62-year-old law professor at the University of Baltimore, made waves when it was announced he was lending $506,000 to jump-start his campaign. He followed that up with strong fundraising numbers, raising $109,000.

“He clearly has the support of the Baltimore City legal community,” Silbergeld said of Higginbotham. “A lot of downtown attorneys who are regular political donors and players. So that was pretty impressive.”

But, she added, “My favorite Kanye West line is ‘Havin’ money’s not everything / not havin’ it is,’” noting that inexperienced candidates with large war chests need to be careful. “I’ve seen ... candidates who’ve raised historic amounts of money spend it in such an unwise and unsophisticated way that they get smacked.”

So far, it would appear Higginbotham has used the money fairly wisely — he seems to be working primarily to increase his name recognition. He was the first candidate to purchase television ads and made a six-figure digital ad buy one that included the race’s first negative ad:

His pitch to voters has been twofold — that his professional experience means he understands the law and levers of power better than any other candidate, and that he’s an outsider with a fresh perspective: “I’m not running to be a Washington elitist, I am running to deliver a new vision focused on results for the people.”

Or a state lawmaker could be headed to Washington

There are also two state lawmakers Kromer and Silbergeld say are worth watching: Del. Terri Hill and Sen. Jill Carter.

Similar to Mfume and Rockeymoore Cummings, the two state lawmakers have fairly high name recognition.

Like Higginbotham, Hill — a 60-year-old plastic surgeon — has appealed to voters as a Washington outsider.

“What I don’t think we’re lacking in Washington is another policy expert,” Hill told the Baltimore Sun. “I don’t think we’re lacking another attorney. But we don’t have enough people who care for people at those critical times.”

But although she’d never been a lawmaker on the federal level, Kromer said she is “a well-respected member of the MD House of Delegates,” and one her constituents know well. She could be stymied, however by the fact that she represents the part of US District 7 that overlaps with Howard County, which has a smaller population than the portion of the district that includes Baltimore County. And unlike Higginbotham or Rockeymoore Cummings, her fundraising hasn’t been strong.

“You have to raise two layers of money,” Silbergeld said. “You have to have the money to get your name recognition up there with voters. And once it’s there, you have to raise the next tier of money to engage with and message to your voters.”

The first layer, Hill doesn’t have to worry about. The second may be an issue for her.

Carter has also struggled with fundraising, but as Silbergeld explained, she possesses a triple advantage.

“Carter has to be in the mix in this election because she has a chunk of the district that just voted her into office as a state senator,” Silbergeld said. “She’s a longtime former state delegate, and she might not be a fundraising machine, but she’s a field machine.”

Carter is a 55-year-old progressive lawmaker known as “the people’s champion,” in part for her efforts to fight then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s “broken windows” policing initiatives, and for her role in helping launch the investigation that led to Mayor Catherine Pugh’s resignation amid a corruption scandal. She has described her time in public service as carrying on the legacy of her father, civil rights leader Walter P. Carter, “militantly, forcefully and unrelentingly.”

Her name recognition and that résumé make her “one to watch,” Kromer said, adding that she’s racked up endorsements from well-known local progressives and “has a lot of these progressive activists out there full force for her. On social media, knocking doors, #JillOnTheHill.” She also received the Baltimore Sun editorial board’s endorsement Sunday for her commitment to the “theme of equity in justice and improving opportunities for those caught up in the system.”

While Carter may be the most progressive candidate in the race, Silbergeld noted that as far as policy positions are concerned, there’s little to differentiate the candidates from one another: “They’re all pretty progressive Democrats.”

Even endorsements seem unlikely to play a role, at least, outside of the ones Carter has won, which have translated into a robust field organization. Kromer and Silbergeld noted that labor unions have largely stayed out of the race, and that even connections to Cummings — Mfume and the late lawmaker’s protégé Harry Spikes have won cosigns from Cummings family members, for instance — aren’t likely to have much of an impact.

All this means who comes out on top will largely depend on their campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts, and which of their personalities voters are most drawn to.

Voter turnout might be low — and the results of this election might not matter anyway

Without polling, it’s impossible to say how tight the margin of victory may be. But experts, Kromer and Silbergeld included, don’t expect major turnout for the special election.

“There’s nothing else driving people to go vote that day, except for this one election,” Silbergeld said. She noted that while it’s been so long since the last special election that it’s difficult to predict what turnout will be like, special elections generally have lower turnout than normal ones. And that is when those special elections aren’t overshadowed by the sorts of dramatic presidential and mayoral races that have consumed voters’ attention.

“There is a lot of distraction going on in the city,” Kromer said, pointing to a lively mayoral contest in Baltimore — the first election following Pugh’s resignation — interest in impeachment proceedings, Maryland’s Democratic presidential primary in April, and the fact much of the special election’s campaign period coincided with major holidays.

Those who do come out will be confronted with a ballot with a long list of names in alphabetical order — all the names will be on one page, but Kromer expects the list to be surprising to many, saying, “People are going to look at that ballot and be like, ‘I don’t know who half of these people are.’”

Tuesday’s winner will then face a new challenge — surviving a second primary. Maryland Board of Election officials told Vox that Seventh District voters will be given two ballots on April 28, one that features both local and federal primary candidates, and another for the special general election. Officials have not yet worked out which will be presented first, but should the special ballot be presented first, Kromer noted voters may be influenced by seeing the same name twice.

This April election is expected to have high turnout, unlike the special primary election, and the large number of voters who come out for this contest but skipped Tuesday’s could change the dynamics of the race — as could any scandals or shifts in momentum that occur between now and then. It’s not impossible then, that the Seventh District might send one Democrat to Washington for the rest of the year, and a different one next year.

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