WASHINGTON - Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen announced yesterday that he would not run for Maryland's vacant U.S. Senate seat next year, ending months of speculation over whether the second-term congressman would join the race to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.
His demurral leaves Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore and Kweisi Mfume, former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as the main contestants for the Democratic nomination - at least for now. A political analyst said Cardin was more likely to benefit from Van Hollen's decision, the theory being that if both congressmen were in the race, there was the potential for a split in the white vote that would have worked to Mfume's advantage.
Van Hollen, who represents Montgomery County, had been considering a bid since Sarbanes announced in March that he would not seek a sixth term. For months, Van Hollen has toured the state to gauge potential support and has raised more than $700,000.
However, running would have forced the 46-year-old congressman to give up a relatively safe House seat, with no guarantee that he could win the Democratic primary. Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele has formed an exploratory committee and will probably wage an extremely well-financed campaign if he runs.
In announcing his decision, Van Hollen pointed to family responsibilities and his work for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which tapped him to recruit candidates for the House in next year's election.
Van Hollen called his choice "one of the most difficult political decisions I have made." But he told supporters in a letter that his desire to spend time with his family and his work helping Democrats regain control of the House next year persuaded him to stay out of the race.
He said he planned to use some of the money he raised to support other Democratic candidates.
Cardin, now in his 10th term representing the Baltimore area, said the decision makes campaigning easier for him. He has raised more than $1 million since announcing his candidacy in April - including in Montgomery County, Van Hollen's turf.
"Clearly, Chris and I share a lot of mutual friends, and it made a difficult choice for people between the two of us," Cardin said. "Certainly, it's good news from the point of view of my campaign."
Mfume said that while a larger primary field would make it easier to win a plurality, Van Hollen's decision would have no bearing on his campaign, which is seeking to make contact with voters and discuss issues.
Mfume said the first 100 days of his campaign were devoted to setting up a campaign apparatus. Now, he said, the focus is on raising money - and making sure his campaign has a presence in every city and county in the state - "so we're able to talk to real people about real issues on every given day."
Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, said Van Hollen's departure is probably more important for Cardin than for Mfume. For starters, he said, it opens up Montgomery County - which is stocked with wealthy Democrats - for Cardin.
The last thing Cardin wants, Crenson said, is another prominent white candidate in a race against Mfume, who is African-American and would presumably garner a considerable portion of the black vote. Fewer candidates also could mean a less-divisive primary, Crenson said.
"It means there's going to be less patching up to do after the primary's over," he said. "If the [Republican] candidate is Michael Steele, this is going to be an election that is probably going to split the black vote more than most."
Van Hollen had to be looking at the situation, Crenson said, and the prospect of a second-term congressman taking on someone who has been in Congress for 20 years.
"He was taking on a big gun in the Democratic Party. Van Hollen's obviously an extremely ambitious man, and other opportunities will open up," Crenson said. "He has a lot of opportunities down the road to wait for - and he's got the time to wait."
Community activist A. Robert Kaufman, a perennial candidate, has also filed to run in the Democratic primary.
Josh Rales, a lawyer and real estate investor from Montgomery County who is considering the race, said he would announce his plans in September. He said Van Hollen's decision "doesn't change the underlying fact that I believe this is a cycle for change and people are looking for ideas."
Voters "want answers. They want solutions, not platitudes. That's the advantage of a private-sector person like me," Rales said, adding that what Cardin "won't be able to do is provide the focus on change."
Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat, is also considering entering the Senate race. She said she would make a decision after returning from a vacation in Maine.
Another potential candidate is forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, the sister of Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren. A two-year Montgomery County resident, Lise Van Susteren said yesterday that she would emphasize health care and environmental issues as a candidate, and planned to reach a decision by the end of the summer. "I have been seriously looking at this for some time," she said.
Van Hollen said he planned to focus on electing Democrats in 2006. But he has no plans to make an endorsement, he said.
"We have two solid candidates already in the race," Van Hollen said. "I intend to support the Democratic nominee."
Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.