WASHINGTON — With less than a month to go before the Maryland Senate primary, Maryland Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards appear locked in a tight race for the Democratic nomination.
Given the recent history of Maryland voters favoring Democrats in Senate races, most observers consider winning the Senate nomination the equivalent of winning the seat.
The most recent poll, conducted by the Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore on March 11, showed Edwards inching past Van Hollen by 6 percent.
However, when other minor candidates were removed from the polling options, Edwards held a 10 percent lead over Van Hollen.
The candidates have been facing off in a series of debates leading up to the April 26 primary.
In a televised debate hosted by WJLA on Tuesday, Edwards revisited some of her arguments from the pair’s first debate March 18, in which Edwards criticized Van Hollen’s record on Social Security.
Edwards, 57, argued Tuesday that Van Hollen, also 57, had in the past “negotiated away” Social Security and Medicare, an action that would have “adversely impacted thousands of seniors across (the) state.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-5th, has not openly endorsed either candidate. But in a separate interview, when asked about Edward’s charges, responded: “Mr. Van Hollen has been a staunch opponent of Republican efforts to either voucherize, reduce, or privatize Social Security and Medicare and a very strong, articulate spokesperson against the budgets which have incorporated that, so I think the assertion is incorrect.”
Van Hollen has countered Edwards by saying she has few accomplishments during her nearly eight years in the House.
In response to questions regarding each candidate’s qualifications Hoyer said: “Chris Van Hollen has been a real leader on the fiscal matters confronting the U.S., our need to invest in education, in health care and the environment, public safety and transportation and has lead on budget efforts.”
“I think he’s perceived as a real expert in those areas and I think that that’s something that speaks well for his leadership,” Hoyer said. Van Hollen has been in the House since 2003 and is the second-ranking Democrat in leadership.
As for Edwards, Hoyer commented: “Congresswoman Edwards obviously has herself been active in a number of different areas, but not as pointedly as Chris Van Hollen because he had a position as ranking member on the budget committee.”
Hoyer noted that Edwards is newer to Congress, adding that, “some would argue that’s a benefit and some would argue that therefore Chris has more accomplishments than she does.”
A Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies Poll released March 8 found that registered Maryland Democrats are evenly split over the two Senate hopefuls, with 42 percent saying they will vote for Van Hollen and 41 percent favoring Edwards.
That leaves 15 percent of Democrats undecided and a competitive road ahead for Van Hollen and Edwards in the final weeks before voting.
These results barely changed from those in a Goucher Poll released late February, which found 39 percent of Maryland Democrats backing Edwards and 37 percent supporting Van Hollen.
“The test for Edwards will be her ability to translate her current electoral support to campaign-sustaining donations,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College in Baltimore. “Van Hollen has the money in his campaign coffers for a strong push to the finish.”
According to Federal Election Commission campaign reports, the Van Hollen campaign has over $4 million in total contributions, which is the fourth-highest amount for Senate campaigns in this election cycle.
Edwards’ receipts come in at just under $1 million.
However, a super PAC that is associated with Emily’s List, one of the top contributors to the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, has promised $1 million in advertising, to Edwards’ campaign. That brings the group’s spending for Edwards to about $2.4 million, according to the Baltimore Sun.
The Gonzales Research Poll revealed that the race is sharply divided by demographic borders of race and gender.
Edwards leads Van Hollen among African-American voters 70 percent to 16 percent. Among females, Edwards leads 47 percent to 36 percent, which is a significant lead for such a tight race.
Edwards also led in the Gonzales survey with 69 percent of the Democratic vote in Prince George’s County and 54 percent in Baltimore City, the latter one of the chief battlegrounds in the race.
But, some analysts argue that even though Van Hollen has a fundraising edge in the campaign, Edwards could still secure the nomination.
“Don’t discount Donna Edwards,” said Nina Kasniunas, associate professor of political science at Goucher College in Baltimore. “She is an outspoken advocate for her constituency and it’s been many years since we have had a black woman get elected to the U.S. Senate.”
The last black woman to serve in the Senate was Carol Moseley Brown, a Democrat from Illinois, who served from 1993 to 1999.
In the upcoming weeks, Edwards intends to continue campaigning on expanding Social Security, spending more on schools, and tighter gun safety laws, among other issues, according to campaign spokesman Benjamin Gerdes.
“Marylanders across the state are learning about Donna’s record of leadership, whether that’s providing after school meals to children in need, holding health insurance companies accountable, or protecting thousands of jobs at NASA Goddard,” Gerdes said.
However, Van Hollen’s status as a “party favorite” could give him a significant edge, according to Kasniunas.
“Chris has spent his years in Congress carefully cultivating relationships with other members,” she said. “His leadership within the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) is a testament to his ability to work with and for others in the Democratic Party and is manifesting in the number of endorsements he is receiving and the large amounts of money he is raising.”
Van Hollen plans to continue campaigning in the coming days on schools and jobs, said campaign spokeswoman Bridgett Frey.
“As Chris talks to voters across the state, it’s clear his message about moving Maryland forward is resonating with working families,” she said. “People are tired of politicians who talk a big game but don’t take action, and they know this election isn’t for sale to the highest super PAC bidder.”
Republican Senate front-runners include Maryland State Delegate Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County and Richard J. Douglas, a lawyer with Pentagon experience from Montgomery County, both face a more difficult challenge in the upcoming primary.
This is not only because 59 percent of Republican voters were undecided, according to a March 13 poll conducted by The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore. In recent years, the Maryland Senate seats have been held by Democrats.
Paul Sarbanes took over the seat in 1977 from Republican John Beall and Sen. Barbara Mikulski won Maryland’s other seat in 1986 after the retirement of Republican Charles Mathias.
Mikulski will have served for 30 years when she retires at the end of her term and, most likely, gives her chair to either Van Hollen or Edwards.