Edwards, Van Hollen in Tight Md. Senate Race

Edwards, Van Hollen in Tight Md. Senate Race
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Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen are locked in a dead heat in the final days of the Democratic Senate primary in Maryland, a race that’s been hard fought, increasingly negative, and difficult to predict even at this late stage.

While some state Democrats say there have been minor shifts in momentum one way or the other, most expect Tuesday’s outcome will be razor close, with an array of factors that could tip the scales for either candidate.

Republicans see the potential to turn this seat red after the GOP’s Larry Hogan won a surprise gubernatorial victory in 2014, but Maryland hasn’t had a Republican senator since Charles “Mac” Mathias left office in early 1987, and most analysts rate the seat being vacated by longtime Sen. Barbara Mikulski as safely Democratic. That means Tuesday night’s winner will most likely be the next senator from Maryland. In recent weeks, Edwards and Van Hollen have campaigned vigorously, with many events focused on the critical battleground of Baltimore, since both lawmakers represent districts in the Washington suburbs. Because each has strong progressive values, they’ve highlighted their personal qualities in an effort to drive supporters to the polls.

For Van Hollen, the overarching message is his ability to craft a deal and show leadership in getting things done in Washington. Bridgett Frey, a spokeswoman his campaign, said in a statement that a competitive race was expected, but that Van Hollen’s support from a key union (the Maryland SEIU) and African-American and female elected officials shows he is the best choice.

“Marylanders are rejecting the negative and misleading attacks from Congresswoman Edwards and her Super PACs,” Frey said. “Chris and his grassroots army are focused on getting his positive message out across the entire state as he fights for every vote."

Edwards’ message centers on her background as a single mother and the historical significance of becoming only the second African-American woman to ever serve in the Senate. Benjamin Gerdes, a spokesman for her campaign, said Marylanders are excited about a candidate who understands their day-to-day struggles.

“We are making sure everyone we contact knows the choice they face, between a business-as-usual Washington insider looking for a promotion, or a bold change-maker who will fight every day for everyday Marylanders, just like Barbara Mikulski,” Gerdes said. “The power is in the people’s hands, and we're confident that Maryland Democrats will choose Donna to represent them in the United States Senate.”

Those stakes have made the primary between two House colleagues extremely hard fought and often negative. The candidates haven’t shied away from attacking each other, either on style or substance. The most recent and telling example was an ad from a super PAC supporting Edwards that cited Van Hollen’s role in negotiating campaign finance legislation in 2010; more to the point, it accused him of cutting a “backroom deal” beneficial to the National Rifle Association.

The super PAC ad used an image of President Obama speaking about the shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 schoolchildren, and was swiftly denounced by the White House, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (a Maryland Democrat), and others.

Edwards’ campaign did not release the ad and cannot legally coordinate with the group that did, but her team released a similar criticism of Van Hollen; though it did not use the president’s image, the backlash was still largely the same. Many Democrats saw the ad as a crucial mistake that came at a particularly unfortunate time.

“She had all the momentum and a lot of things were breaking her way and that might have been a moment where she went too far and it hurt her,” said Steve Kearney, a past aide to former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Though much of the backlash centered on the use of Obama’s image by the PAC without the White House’s approval, some critics seized upon the underlying assertion that Van Hollen was weak on gun control. Hoyer pointed out that he, Pelosi and many other Democrats voted for the campaign finance agreement, and took issue with Edwards’ characterization of it. Other Maryland Democrats did as well.

“The insinuation that Chris Van Hollen was weak on gun control was kind of absurd to everyone that new Van Hollen. It was a ludicrous attack, and to use the president in there was a mistake,” said John Willis, the former Maryland secretary of state. “I think that gave the Van Hollen campaign an opening with some folks.”

Indeed, his camp then used Obama’s name and the White House in an attack against Edwards. The ad ends with this question: “Donna Edwards -- will she say anything to win an election?”

Prior to the misfired ad, Edwards seemed to control her destiny, with a poll at the end of March showing her with a four-point lead. Soon afterward, several sources said the momentum shifted toward Van Hollen. The caveat, however, is that much can change in the final days of a heated campaign, and most warned that there are too many variables to predict which way the race will go.

Some pointed to the 2006 Maryland Senate primary between Reps. Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume as instructive. Nearly 600,000 votes were cast and Cardin won by fewer than 20,000; many expect this year to be similarly close.

There is also a range of factors that could tip the balance. The presidential primary is much more competitive than many would have predicted months ago, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders giving former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a serious challenge. The presidential primary in the Old Line State is now much more important than expected months ago.  

Along with that, there are two competitive congressional primaries, including one in Van Hollen’s district in which one candidate, businessman David Trone, has spent $12 million of his own money, becoming the highest self-funding House candidate in history, according to National Journal. If turnout is high in Montgomery County because of that race, it could benefit Van Hollen, who has strong support in the county he represents.

Lastly, there is a competitive mayoral race in Baltimore on Tuesday, which could create high voter turnout because of the activism driven by the death last April of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who died while in police custody. Gray’s death sparked outrage, rioting and criminal charges against six police officers. High turnout among the African-American community in Baltimore could benefit Edwards, though Van Hollen also has significant endorsements from members of the African-American community in Charm City.

“We are seeing an unprecedented amount of political activity in the state for a primary election right now in Maryland,” said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist with ties to the state. “There are all these factors at play that make this a very unique year in Maryland and very hard to predict what’s going to happen.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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