LANDOVER — Just miles from the U.S. Capitol, two House Democrats are locked in an intense and increasingly personal battle for the future of their party and the legacy of one of the Senate’s most path-breaking members.
Tuesday’s Maryland Democratic Senate primary between Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen has become a polarizing battle over race, gender and personality that has transfixed and divided fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill. The White House and prominent national Democrats have weighed in on behalf of Van Hollen, even as Edwards backers insist that her opportunity to become just the second black female U.S. senator in history must not be denied.
And the contest contains echoes of the Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, as Edwards and Van Hollen present similarly progressive agendas, wrapped in dramatically different approaches to politics. Edwards, emphasizing her personal story as a single black mom, champions an uncompromising brand of liberalism critics say would exacerbate the polarization on Capitol Hill. Van Hollen is running as a pragmatic deal-maker in a Congress where compromise is increasingly a dirty word, an approach that’s opened him to attacks that he can’t be trusted to protect core Democratic programs like Social Security.
“To hell with the aspirations of centuries of people in Maryland, a place where Harriet Tubman came from,” said Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, an Edwards backer in the Congressional Black Caucus, bridling at Democratic establishment support for Van Hollen. “To hell with that. I mean, he looks like a senator.”
“I can tell you that it matters, and it matters a lot, for women to be elected to Congress,” Moore added, noting that no black woman has served in the Senate since Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois lost her re-election bid more than 15 years ago. “There’s nobody who’s an African-American woman in there at all.”
Some of Van Hollen’s supporters are just as adamant that race and gender shouldn’t matter in the campaign. They point to Van Hollen’s record as a results-oriented leader on budgetary and other issues on Capitol Hill, compared with Edwards’ thinner legislative record and notoriety for clashing with fellow lawmakers and shortchanging constituent services.
“The choice in this election is very clear,” said Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of neighboring Virginia. “It is whether the people of Maryland want somebody who can be effective, or somebody who’s going to bask in her own feelings of moral superiority because of various and sundry factors, and effectiveness has nothing to do with it.”
The passions over the campaign relate partly to the lawmaker Edwards and Van Hollen, both 57, are vying to replace. Retiring five-term Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski is the longest-serving female senator in history, an admired progressive who’s often referred to as the Dean of the Senate’s 20 female members. Because of Maryland’s Democratic tilt, whichever lawmaker wins April 26 will be heavily favored to triumph in the November general election and become Mikulski’s successor.
Mikulski’s unique stature in the Senate has shadowed the race from the outset. To the dismay of Van Hollen supporters, the pro-women political group Emily’s List and its connected super PAC have spent millions on Edwards’ behalf, evening what might otherwise have been a significant financial advantage for Van Hollen. Mikulski was the first female lawmaker Emily’s List successfully backed, and the group is determined to replace her with another woman.
“We want to carry on that legacy and believe Donna would be the best person to do that,” said Rachel Thomas, Emily’s List press secretary.
Yet some of Edwards’ colleagues on Capitol Hill disagree. Both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus refused to endorse Edwards through their political arms, despite her membership in both groups. And though most are publicly neutral, top Democrats from the White House on down weighed in earlier this month to denounce a pro-Edwards ad suggesting Van Hollen had supported the National Rifle Association. That seemed to wink-and-nod establishment support for Van Hollen, who’s been a close ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and was seen as her logical successor before he got into the Senate race.
Once he did so he was seen by many as Mikulski’s natural replacement. But then Edwards announced her candidacy, riling some fellow Democrats who’ve since gone public to denounce her and claim constituents and even fellow lawmakers can’t get a hearing from her. Her supporters call such complaints sexist and racially tinged, and say what really bothers Edwards’ critics is her willingness to disrupt the established order. A recent poll showed Van Hollen leading, but all involved expect the outcome to be close between a candidate who could make history and add a missing viewpoint, and one who might do more to heal Washington and make Congress work.
“I think that those are really unique perspectives to bring into the Senate,” Edwards said of her own experience as a single mom struggling through hardship.
But Van Hollen suggested he has a valuable perspective of his own. “If we take all-or-nothing positions,” he said, “we get nothing.”
Werner reported from Washington.