Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s (D-MD) decision to retire at the end of her term has sparked a predictable succession feud among Democrats in that deep blue state, but the coming internecine squabble has the potential to engulf the entire party.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a six-term member of Congress and the former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, wasted no time in declaring his intention to run for Mikulski’s seat. On Friday, he received a powerful endorsement from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

“I enthusiastically endorse Chris Van Hollen for the United States Senate,” Reid said in a statement. “Not only would Chris Van Hollen be the best and most effective person for the job, I have no doubt that he is in the best and strongest position to make sure that this Senate seat remains in Democratic hands in a State that just elected a Republican Governor.”

There is just one problem for Van Hollen. For an increasingly progressive Democratic Party steeped in identity politics, replacing one of the Senate’s leading female voices with a white male is seen by many as an undesirable prospect. Fortunately for Democrats, there is another option: Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD). Though she has not declared her intention to run for Mikulski’s seat, and would likely frustrate Democratic leadership if she did, she has expressed her interest in running for the U.S. Senate from her home state.

Progressives groups, meanwhile, are not taking “yes” for an answer. This week, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy For America, Blue America, and a host of other Maryland-based liberal groups launched a draft movement aimed at compelling Edwards, a woman and an African-American, to run to replace Mikulski.

Via The Huffington Post:

“Donna was the first member of Congress to introduce a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United,” Carrie Biggs-Adams, a member of the PCCC, wrote in an email to her group’s members. “She led the National Network to End Domestic Violence. And Donna agrees with Elizabeth Warren that we should expand Social Security benefits — never cut them.”

Charles Chamberlain, DFA’s executive director, pointed to Edwards’ role as co-chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program as an example of her leadership.

“As the longest-serving woman in Congress, Sen. Mikulski has fought to elect more women at all levels of office,” he said. “It’s up to us to make sure Barbara’s replacement continues that fight — and there is no better way to do it than by electing another tough Democratic woman like Donna Edwards.”

If Edwards did want to mount a bid for the Senate against Van Hollen, she would likely enter the race from a position of strength. Despite the fact that the former DCCC chairman would enjoy the support of his party’s established elected officials and could tap into a healthy donor base, Edwards – a progressive firebrand with an appealing biography – has the potential to upend conventional wisdom. The Democratic Party’s grassroots supporters and activists who back Edwards would chafe mightily at the forces the party would bring to bear in order to prevent her from taking a seat in the upper chamber of Congress.

This crisis may yet be averted, but an open civil war between the Democratic Party’s establishmentarians and the far-left progressive grassroots may well begin in The Old Line State.