For the past 39 years, the very popular Barbara Mikulski has served as Maryland’s most senior representative in Congress. When the feisty, 4-foot-11 former social worker announced last year that she would not seek another a sixth term as U.S. Senator, the two Democratic candidates jumped into the race and almost immediately emerged as frontrunners.
Rep. Donna Edwards, the congresswoman who since 2008 has represented District 4, which comprises Prince George’s County and parts of Anne Arundel County, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a congressman since 2003 from Montgomery County’s District 8, are vying for a Senate position that doesn’t become available too often. The winner will serve alongside Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland’s other senator who because of staggered six-year terms won’t be up for re-election until 2018.
They both acknowledge that by succeeding Mikulski, the longest serving woman in Congress, they will have big shoes to fill, especially given her legacy of responsive constituent service, an unflagging support of senior issues, particularly Medicare and Social Security, and priorities involving young people, working families and quality education.
While Edwards and Van Hollen frequently invoke Mikulski’s name into their remarks and talking points, her office says she does not make endorsements during a primary campaign. Another elected official whose endorsement would be welcome is Congressman Elijah Cummings, who is up for re-election this month and appears to be remaining neutral.
Neither is widely known to Baltimore County voters and have taken to the airwaves for radio and television advertising, participating in political forums, and visiting neighborhoods to introduce themselves to Baltimore area voters before they head to the polls April 14 through 21 for early voting on and April 26 for Primary Election Day. Baltimore County is expected to be a deciding jurisdiction in the race.
Though Van Hollen has racked up a number of prominent endorsements and raised significantly more money, recent polls put him and his opponent within six percentage points at any given time, with each exchanging leads.
In observing their campaigns, Donald Norris, professor and director of the School of Public Policy at University of Maryland Baltimore County, says, “They’re doing what anybody would do—advertise, advertise, advertise.”
Radio show host Larry Young says that Edwards and Van Hollen are coming from two of the largest jurisdictions, but must appeal to the Baltimore area. “Both are doing a good job coming to this region to ask people to vote for them,” he says. “They have strong commercials and they’re being progressive.”
“Since the turnout in Baltimore City is expected to be low, Baltimore County is key,” Young predicts.
If voters are looking to their positions and voting records to help them decide whom they should choose, they may not find much difference. Van Hollen and Edwards see eye-to-eye on most domestic issues, such as national security and gun control, as well as on foreign policy. They both agree that a two-state solution should be negotiated for Israel and Palestine and that the United States should accept more Syrian refugees.
To distinguish themselves, the candidates have been calling each other out on the super PACs that are pouring millions into their campaigns, evolving positions on Social Security benefits and trade, and constituent service. Emily’s List, an organization that supports Democratic women who are pro-choice is supporting Edwards and the National Association of Realtors.
“When he was in a leadership position negotiating the budget, Mr. Van Hollen expressed a willingness to consider cuts to Medicare and Social Security as a way to get to a budget deal. And I think that’s unacceptable,“ Edwards says. Van Hollen changed his position only when he decided to run for the Senate, she says.
Edwards adds that Van Hollen has supported nine of the last 11 trade deals, which she says has cost Maryland some 70,000 manufacturing jobs that have left the state since the trade deals have been enacted. He’s since changed his position.
Van Hollen defended his actions and countered that Edwards’ remarks are misleading and that collaboration is necessary to win gains.
Both are courting women and black voters. Norris says, “The African-American vote in the primaries is big because they make of 30 percent of the vote in the state. Within the Democratic Primary they make of 40 to 50 percent in the state.” He pointed out that most African-American leaders have endorsed Van Hollen.
Young attributes much of Van Hollen’s support from African-American elected officials to the collegial relationship he has maintained with them since his tenure in the Maryland General Assembly. “They know him and they trust him.”
Young says that when voters are considering candidates with similar records, they will vote for the person who they think will do better given the opportunity.
While themes of establishment candidates versus outsider and political correctness have dominated the conversation in the presidential contest, they will have no bearing on the Maryland Senate race, says Norris. “It will depend on who turns out their constituencies.”
Young presents three scenarios: “Will Edwards’ constituency come out stronger or will Van Hollen’s? Will women look to Edwards, who has the support of Emily’s List? Will Baltimore County, Anne Arundel and Harford tend to go Van Hollen or will Anne Arundel County go to to Edwards?”
There are eight other Democrats, 14 Republicans, six independents, one Green and one Libertarian in the Senate race. Also on ballot are candidates for the House of Representatives, including Rep. John Sarbanes in District 3, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger in District 6 and Rep. Elijah Cummings in District 7.
In the Democratic primary for president, Maryland will play a greater role this year with former Secretary Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders still running strong.
Plan to attend the political forum featuring Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen on Saturday, April 9, 1 p.m., at the Woodlawn Community Center.
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