Ahead in the polls but lagging badly in fundraising, Rep. Donna F. Edwards this month embarked on a tour of Maryland colleges and senior centers to woo the state’s youngest and oldest voters.
Meanwhile, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Edwards’s opponent for the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) has tapped into his sizable war chest to launch television ads in Baltimore, where he is not well known and does not have a strong base of support.
Both candidates have ample opportunity to sway the Democratic electorate before the April 26 primary, with a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll showing 25 percent of self-identified Democrats on the fence or unsatisfied with the choices.
Van Hollen, a seven-term congressman from Montgomery County, has more than 10 times as much money in his campaign fund as Edwards, who reported $640,000 in fundraising for the third quarter.
But Edwards, a four-term incumbent from Prince George’s County, had a 10-point lead over Van Hollen in a head-to-head competition, according to the Post-U.Md. poll.
The wild card in the contest is 10-term Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who is considering a run for Mikulski’s seat. The poll showed him leading Edwards and Van Hollen by 13 points in a three-way race.
Experts say Edwards, a staunch political outsider who has cast herself as a passionate progressive, may be benefiting from voter frustration with the political and economic systems — the same frustration that has buoyed the unconventional presidential campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is seeking the Democratic nomination, and businessman Donald Trump, who is vying to be the Republican Party’s nominee.
At the same time, they say, Van Hollen might be struggling to win support by defining himself as a traditional leader with progressive values and the broad backing of the Democratic establishment.
“That’s not the profile people seem to be responding to early this year,” longtime party strategist Mike Morrill said. “They’re looking for that activist push. He has to show that the effective way of making an activist push is getting things done.”
Van Hollen appears to be trying just that with his latest ads, one of which depicts him as a candidate who stood up to special interests in Congress and the state legislature.
“I’ve seen him take on the [National Rifle Association] on guns; I’ve seen him take on the oil companies on the environment,” Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) says in the ad, which details Van Hollen’s successful effort as a state lawmaker to require built-in trigger locks for all handguns purchased in Maryland.
As for Edwards’s firebrand approach, analysts say it could backfire just as easily as it helps her. They say she needs a message that solidifies her support among primary voters without boxing her out of the general election.
“We saw during the last election that just winning the Democratic nomination is not enough,” Morrill said, referring to the surprise defeat of then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) by Republican businessman Larry Hogan in the 2014 gubernatorial race.
Veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who did polling work for Cummings during past election cycles, questions whether Edwards can sustain her early lead without greater financial backing. She has $368,000 in the bank, compared with more than $4 million for Van Hollen. Aides said she has 2,600 volunteers working for her field operation.
“She’s not on pace from a fundraising point of view to put together a winning primary campaign at this stage of the game,” Mellman said. “That doesn’t mean she can’t win, but something has to change.”
Analysts say Van Hollen, whose field operation includes more than 1,000 volunteers, has the resources he will need to close the gap with Edwards.
“He has to spend more to get his message across because his message is more nuanced and not as easily synced to the current trend and mood that you’re seeing in the national electorate,” Morrill said.
Mellman said Van Hollen would need to make inroads with African Americans and Baltimore voters to defeat Edwards, who is the first black woman to represent Maryland in Congress and would be the state’s first African American U.S. senator.
Blacks make up about 40 percent of the state’s Democratic electorate. The Post-U.Md. poll showed Edwards with the support of 49 percent of African American Democrats in a head-to-head contest against Van Hollen, who was backed by only 15 percent of the same group despite endorsements from high-profile black Democrats such as Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.
“Van Hollen is less well known in those communities, and he doesn’t have that natural ethnic base to work with,” Mellman said. “But he has a lot of money, and he’ll be able to get better known over the course of spending it.”
Cummings, whose district includes parts of Baltimore and Howard and Baltimore counties, raised $135,474 in the past quarter for his House reelection campaign. Should he decide to run for Senate, his $980,916 in campaign funds could be used for that purpose.
The top Democrat on the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Cummings reiterated Sunday that he would make his decision about whether to run for Senate after the completion of the panel’s high-profile examination of Democratic presidential candidate and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“When I’m not even in the race, by the way, and I’m leading by 13 points, it does give me an idea of how I would do,” he told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”