President Obama’s Iran agreement is dividing Democrats in Maryland’s Senate primary, reflecting the difficult choice many in the party face.
Rep. Donna Edwards has attacked her opponent, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, for not yet endorsing the complex nuclear agreement. His decision will be based on policy, not politics, his campaign said, and he is closely studying the 109-page deal.
But political implications are unavoidable. Democrats around the country are worried that supporting a deal that proves ineffective would have serious political repercussions, and are aware that the agreement is stirring deep worry among many Americans, especially Jews concerned about Iran’s antipathy to Israel.
In Maryland, Edwards has attacked Van Hollen as too moderate in general for the state’s liberal Democratic primary voters, even as she has fended off accusations from some Jewish leaders that she is insufficiently supportive of Israel.
Both candidates are assiduously courting Jewish voters, particularly in the Baltimore area where neither candidate is known well.
“Congressman Van Hollen is doing what he does far too often — holding his finger to the air, and waiting to see which direction the political winds are blowing,” Edwards said in a statement this week. “That’s not leadership, that’s followership.”
In response, Van Hollen’s campaign manager suggested that Edwards was fundamentally flighty. She noted that Maryland’s two sitting Democratic senators, Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, are also undecided on the agreement.
“While serious people ... review the facts about this incredibly important nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, Donna Edwards once again is only interested in political attacks,” Sheila O’Connell said.
Cardin has said the deal must be carefully considered, as “there is no trust when it comes to Iran.” Mikulski, whose retirement at the end of next year prompted Van Hollen’s and Edwards’s candidacies, has said Congress must “do its due diligence in a purposeful and rigorous way. No stone can remain unturned.”
Edwards has key members of the Democratic leadership on her side. Not only Obama, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton have expressed support of the deal.
At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who has endorsed Van Hollen, has not taken a position on the Iran agreement.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) of Baltimore, who has not ruled out his own Senate campaign, issued a statement that appeared to agree with Obama’s contention that the only other option for keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is war.
“Our past experience with Iran supports the conclusion that approval and implementation of this international agreement or commitment of our armed forces are the only viable paths to denying Iranian possession of nuclear weapons,” Cummings wrote.
Van Hollen did not attend a briefing on Iran Wednesday with Vice President Joe Biden, who was tasked by the White House with addressing congressional concerns. However, his office said the congressman is in regular contact with the National Security Council regarding the agreement.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is pressuring members of Congress to vote against the deal. Liberal J Street is countering with a multimillion dollar ad campaign in support of the agreement.
“It’s really a tough decision. He’s in leadership,” said Yehuda Neuberger, a politically active member of Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community. Neuberger is supporting the Senate campaign of Van Hollen, whom he introduced to local rabbis, community leaders and political donors at an event at his home earlier this year. “I would love to see him vote no; I don’t know how he will vote.”
J Street is supporting Edwards in the Senate race, but that endorsement is not exclusive. Van Hollen also has a good relationship with the group, which is open to endorsing him as well.
A spokeswoman for J Street said there was no pressure on members of Congress to come to a quick conclusion.
“To those lawmakers who are taking time to review the deal, we’d say: ‘Good, please take the time you need to read and review the deal closely because the facts speak for themselves once they are known,’” Jessica Rosenblum said.