By Barry Rascovar
Tuesday’s primary election in Maryland has more drama and national attention than any in recent memory. Democratic voters, in particular, have an eventful choice to make in the U.S. Senate primary: Will they favor symbolism or substance?
If the election were based on achievements and legislative accomplishments, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County would be a landslide winner. His record is heads and shoulders above that of Rep. Donna Edwards of Prince George’s County, who has little to show for eight years in Congress.
Edwards’ campaign pitch, delivered almost exclusively to African Americans and women, is that she is a crusader for those two groups. Other voters in the state have been largely ignored.
Edwards is pitching the notion that it is more important to elect a symbolic black female than an accomplished male with solid credentials in the fight for women’s rights and equality for minorities.
Idealists and protesters
In many ways, it is the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders divide all over again. Sanders and Edwards are idealists and protest movement leaders. They excel at sweeping denunciations of the status quo and demanding radical change to obviate social injustice.
But as far as finding practical solutions and realistic ways to solve intractable problems, Sanders and Edwards come up woefully short. They are visionaries and crusaders, not worker-bees and negotiators.
They may claim credit for the ultimate reforms but they weren’t in the room doing the hard work of finding a path forward through a thicket of political and societal obstacles.
Clinton and Van Hollen are pragmatists who recognize Rome wasn’t built in a day (legislatively speaking) and that steady progress toward Democratic social goals is the most pragmatic tactic. It’s not an exciting or emotionally riveting approach but it gets you where you want to go.
When he was in Annapolis as a state delegate and then a state senator, Van Hollen was viewed as a rising star. When he went to Congress, it wasn’t long before he became a key member of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle. Why? Because he’s effective. He knows how to get things done and to do so in ways that won’t alienate colleagues or blow up compromises.
Van Hollen well liked, effective
Van Hollen is exceptionally well-liked by those who have worked with him; Edwards is not. Fewer than 10 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed her Senate bid, which is a telling slight. The vast majority of elected black officials in Maryland have cast their lot with Van Hollen as well.
Edwards has given residents of her congressional district the back of her hand, preferring to focus on national feminist and African American causes rather than delivering quality constituent service. She also has spent little time canvassing the entire state, especially in the Baltimore region where many voters wouldn’t recognize Edwards if she bumped into them.
One of the oddities of this Senate primary is the peculiarly myopic position of Emily’s List, which has poured nearly $2.5 million into a drive to nominate Edwards, even though Van Hollen has an equally sterling record in support of women’s rights.
It could come back to haunt supporters of women’s rights because Edwards is the Democrat that Maryland Republicans want to run against. She is viewed as vulnerable in the November election.
Edwards’ base of support is narrow, but in a Democratic primary she is hoping that vast numbers of African American women will exert enough voting power to pull her over the top.
Republicans have legitimate chance
In November, though, the African American vote isn’t nearly as great. Republicans see a legitimate chance to cast Edwards as a far left-wing radical who does not represent the views of mainstream Marylanders.
Emily’s List opted to divert $2.5 million of its funds from other Senate races where strong female candidates could well oust incumbent Republicans if given a big financial boost.
It was not a smart move and it angered many supporters of the group in Maryland who view the group’s endorsement and financial backing of Edwards destructive to the Democratic Party and overtly sexist.
How this primary race turns out is likely to determine the type of senator Maryland gets for the next six years (or more). Van Hollen is far closer to the image of retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who speaks loudly and gruffly but knows how to work the legislative system to get what she wants for her home state. Edwards has shown no inclination she would follow Mikulski’s formula.
Van Hollen appears to have the advantage – in recent polls, in the support of elected officials, in key newspaper endorsements, in his fund-raising prowess, in the quality of his advertising and in his ground-level election operations (his team knocked on seven times more doors during the week of early voting than Team Edwards).
Turnout could prove telling, but excitement over the presidential races, two hotly contested congressional races in the Washington suburbs, an equally intense race for Baltimore mayor and the Edwards-Van Hollen contest could boost voter intensity all over the state.
Do Democrats in Maryland want a senator who is an eloquent civil rights protester or a practitioner of the practical? The outcome could weigh heavily on the direction of state politics in the years to come.