Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has a 30-point lead over Maryland Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. He has twice as much cash in the bank and far broader name recognition after 13 years in Congress and a bruising primary in the spring that drew national attention.
But that did not stop Szeliga, the minority whip in the House of Delegates, from challenging Van Hollen on Saturday for his lack of experience in the private sector and arguing that she is better suited to help the middle class.
“What hinders the middle class the most is taxes, and what hinders business from creating jobs and moving people into the middle class are regulations,” she said before an audience of about 70 people on the Germantown campus of Montgomery College.
Van Hollen, who appeared after Szeliga, told voters he is the candidate who would look out for working families and carry on Mikulski’s legacy. “My top priority will be to accelerate economic growth in Maryland and around the country and do it in a way that all Marylanders can benefit from those efforts,” he said.
The forum, hosted by the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association and AARP, launched a series of at least four events that the candidates plan to attend together — or one after the other — after weeks of bickering over a schedule.
Szeliga and Van Hollen are scheduled to debate Oct. 7 on WAMU-FM’s Kojo Nnamdi Show and Oct. 26 on WJZ-TV, the CBS affiliate in Baltimore. They are also scheduled to take part in an Oct. 8 forum hosted by the group African Americans in Howard County. Szeliga has criticized Van Hollen for not agreeing to more debates after joining Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) for nine debates and forums during the spring’s Democratic primary.
An OpinionWorks poll last month showed that 55 percent of likely Maryland voters say they plan to cast their ballots for the congressman in the Nov. 8 election, compared with 26 percent for Szeliga.
“I don’t see much of a chance of Szeliga winning,” said John Bullock, an associate professor of political science at Towson University. “She’s resonating with some folks, but if you look at the lead Chris Van Hollen has, I think it’s insurmountable at this point.”
Melissa Deckman, chair of Washington College’s political science department, said Szeliga’s Senate run will enhance her credibility within the GOP and raise her profile statewide, regardless of the outcome.
“She’s popular in her district, she’s viewed as a dutiful soldier within her party, and I think the party will be grateful to her for that,” Deckman said. “If she wants to rise in the leadership ranks of the party, this will be helpful.”
Van Hollen says he is not taking anything for granted.
He and Szeliga have been crisscrossing the state to attend public events, shore up their bases and rack up endorsements.
Van Hollen’s campaign said it has recruited more than 3,000 volunteers and knocked on nearly 108,000 doors since the April primary. The congressman had collected nearly $8 million in campaign contributions by July, but he spent most of that money on his primary battle against Edwards.
He reported about $566,800 in cash on hand at the end of June, more than twice the $255,000 that Szeliga had in the bank. Her campaign has collected $897,000 since launching in 2015.
In recent months, Van Hollen has visited every major military installation in Maryland, checked in with small businesses throughout the state and met with religious leaders in Charles County, his campaign said.
He has picked up endorsements from state Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), the state teachers union, the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, NARAL Pro Choice America and the environmental group Ocean Champions, among others.
Szeliga, who runs a construction company with her husband, has appeared at Rotary Club meetings, attended a Marine Trades Association meeting in Middle River, Md., visited a training center for skilled trades in Baltimore and toured the facilities of a Baltimore arcade-game distributor, where she picked up an endorsement from the National Federation of Independent Business.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R), whose approval rating climbed above 70 percent in the OpinionWorks poll last month, endorsed Szeliga in July. She also has the backing of groups including the Associated Builders and Contractors.
Szeliga has focused her campaign on issues that resonate strongly with conservatives, saying she would fight to rein in spending, help fix bureaucracy in the Department of Veterans Affairs and show more support for Israel than her Democratic opponent.
She criticizes Van Hollen for backing the Iran nuclear deal and says he should have spoken out against a recent U.S. payment to Iran that settled a decades-old claim about frozen assets.
Van Hollen, in turn, has tried to tie Szeliga to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and has described her as out of touch with Maryland voters for opposing state laws to legalize same-sex marriage, tighten gun control and boost the minimum wage.
Szeliga, who has said she will support Trump as her party’s presidential nominee, also has criticized some of his remarks. She said that same-sex marriage is a settled issue that has little relevance in the election and that enacting a federal $15 minimum wage, something Van Hollen has supported, would drastically reduce hiring.
If elected to the Senate, Van Hollen says, he would push for an end to tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas and for more investments in early education and after-school programs.
Szeliga describes Van Hollen as the ultimate insider in a broken political system, who has worked almost exclusively in politics.
Van Hollen said that his political experience is an asset and that he knows how to work with both major parties and get things done in Washington.
On Friday, Szeliga traveled to Dorchester County, on the state’s Eastern Shore, for a candidate forum hosted by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. Van Hollen sent former chief of staff Bill Parsons to fill in for him, saying he had a scheduling conflict.
Szeliga accused Van Hollen of ducking the forum to avoid the Chamber of Commerce, saying in a campaign email that he’s been “failing Maryland businesses for decades.”
Van Hollen said he had a previously scheduled meeting with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which endorsed him that day. His campaign noted that Szeliga missed the first GOP primary debate.
Green Party candidate Margaret Flowers is also running for the Senate seat.