Photo above: Rep. Donna Edwards (By jdlasica with Flickr Creative Commons License.)
By Glynis Kazanjian
Filling the shoes of retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski is going to be tough, but Congresswoman Donna Edwards, a leading voice among progressives, says she’s up to the task.
She’s the right gender and becoming Maryland’s first African American senator would fit historically with “Senator Barb’s” long list of firsts, including being the first Democratic woman elected “in her own right” to the U.S. Senate and the first woman elected to the Senate in Maryland.
Edwards is reveling in a recent endorsement from Emily’s List – one of the nation’s largest political advocacy groups whose mission is to elect pro-choice female candidates. Mikulski was one of the first women to gain the group’s endorsement in her first Senate run in 1986.
“Since coming to Congress, I have been a tireless advocate for improving the lives of Maryland women,” Edwards said. “This election is about values, and the voices and votes of women that are so critical to acting upon those values. That is why I am proud to stand united with EMILY’s List and women across our state in continuing the fight for policies to protect a woman’s right to choose from Tea Party attacks, promote equal pay for equal work, and ensure access to quality, affordable childcare for all working families.”
Other prominent Maryland Democrats are considering a run for the seat, and Congressman Chris Van Hollen has already announced his candidacy, carrying a similar progressive torch – including advocating for women’s rights.
Race and gender
So what will influence Democratic primary voters to choose one candidate over the other? Race is a big factor, especially in the Democratic primary, says St. Mary’s College political science professor Todd Eberly.
Eberly believes that because Maryland’s minority population has continued to grow in recent years, many minority voters may not think another white male representing Maryland in the Senate would reflect the state’s diversity.
“I think there will be a desire to elect an African American Senator,” said Eberly.
Currently Edwards, of Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, is in a two-way contest with Van Hollen, who represents parts of Montgomery, Frederick and Carroll County voters in Maryland’s newly configured 8th district. However, Mikulski’s retirement announcement is just three weeks old and the race remains fluid.
Rep. John Delaney, whose redrawn 6th district includes five counties stretching from Montgomery to Garrett, the most western part of the state, is “seriously considering” a run.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, 2nd district, of Baltimore, Rep. John Sarbanes, 3rd district, Rep. Elijah Cummings, 7th district, Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake and former delegate and gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur, are also names that have been mentioned. Cummings and Rawlings-Blake are also African American.
Maryland’s last three Senators — Mikulski, Ben Cardin and Paul Sarbanes — all represented the Baltimore-based 3rd district at the time of their election. The district has become one of most gerrymandered in the country, now stretching almost to Silver Spring.
Being the sole woman in the race could generate votes for Edwards that would otherwise go to male candidates.
“I would be inclined to vote for a woman over a man if they are both Democrats,” said Silver Spring resident Caroline Elmendorf, 52, an attorney. “I think having more women in leadership in the Senate and in other government positions is good for the country.”
However, Eberly is quick to point out that female-themed campaigns, including ones that Emily’s List has promoted, haven’t always panned out.
“I think the Hillary campaign in 2008 showed pretty clearly that a female candidate can’t assume she’ll win over female voters,” Eberly said. “Heather Mizeur didn’t win the female vote in the 2014 primary either. So I don’t see gender being an issue that helps or hurts.”
African American voters
African American voters, however, routinely deliver 80-85% of their vote to pro-choice, liberal Democratic candidates, Eberly said. And presidential elections compared to mid-term elections have higher turnouts.
In the 2008 presidential primary in Prince George’s County, where two-thirds of the population is African American, Barack Obama got 79% of the vote compared to 20% for Hillary Clinton.
“In a two way race with Van Hollen, I would expect to see an outcome similar to the 2006 Cardin/Mfume [U.S. Senate primary] race,” Eberly said. “The county-by-county results made clear that the Democratic primary vote was racially polarized.”
Kweisi Mfume, an African American, received 70% of the vote in Prince George’s, compared to 20% for Benjamin Cardin. In a crowded field, Cardin won statewide by 18,000 votes (44%) to Mfume’s 41%.
Overall, Maryland’s African American population is only 30%, but Prince George’s County – where Edwards is based – has the largest number of registered Democratic voters in the state, 424,000.
Montgomery County has the second highest number of registered Democrats, Baltimore County now has the third highest and Baltimore City is a distant fourth.
If the number of Democratic candidates grows larger in the 2016 Senate primary election, Eberly expects Edwards to benefit.
“With three candidates someone could win with as little as 33.4% of the vote,” Eberly said. “In a 4-way race it would be as little as 25.1%. If Edwards could consolidate African American support, she would have the same lock on the party nomination that Anthony Brown had.”
Republican Party view
Maryland Republican Party Executive Director Joe Cluster said while he is confident Edwards will attract Democratic women and “galvanize” the African American vote, he does not believe she’ll be able to reach voters across the aisle.
“She is the most liberal U.S. Congressman we have in the Maryland,” Cluster said. “She’s definitely not going to attract conservatives. Her core appeal would be to get the core progressives out to vote in a Presidential Election year.”
Cluster said Mikulski was looked upon differently than other Democrats.
“She was an icon in the state,” Cluster said. “Whenever we did polls, her favorability was always very high. She cared about Marylanders . . . she cared about the state she was from and people respected her and thought she was a hard worker [for them].”
There would be pros and cons if Edwards became the Democratic nominee, Cluster said. He also feels it would be “very difficult” for Republicans to win if the Democratic nominee was moderate.
“If the moderate Democrat [candidate] is able to hold the moderate Democrats from coming over that voted for Larry Hogan, it will be a lot tougher for us to win,” Cluster said. “But we will run a candidate no matter what. We’re not going to just leave open a U.S. Senate seat.”
Linda Jackson, 49, a registered Democrat from Rockville said gender would play no part in her decision on Election day.
“I would not vote for a candidate simply based on gender,” Jackson said. “It is much more important to me what they stand for, and also what kind of senator they would likely be. Are they divisive by nature? Are they ideological lightning rods? If so, then I would probably not vote for that person. I believe Congress needs more moderate people who are committed to moving Congress towards being a functional part of government.