The two Democrats vying to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) are neck and neck with less than two months before the primary, and a large chunk of likely Democratic voters remain undecided, according to a new poll from Goucher College.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen has stockpiled 10 times as much money as Rep. Donna F. Edwards and is strongly positioned to continue the barrage of television advertising he has launched in Baltimore in recent months. But Edwards has the support of the fundraising juggernaut Emily’s List and scored two percentage points higher than Van Hollen in the poll — well within the margin of error.
Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they would back Edwards in the April 26 primary, while 37 percent supported Van Hollen. About 23 percent said they were undecided.
In the Democratic presidential race, poll respondents in Maryland continue to favor former secretary of state Hillary Clinton by a wide margin over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The Senate race is “a standard head-to-head,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher in suburban Baltimore. “What will be interesting is if Edwards can keep the race tight and translate that support into fundraising.”
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland, said, “So far, Edwards has done quite well with very little.”
“We have reached a point in politics when television advertising doesn’t have the effect it used to,” he said. “We live in an era of Hulu, Netflix and DVR where people don’t have to watch TV.”
Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College on the Eastern Shore, said the Maryland race in some ways mirrors the primary contest between Clinton, the establishment favorite, and Sanders, who is attracting considerable support from younger and disaffected Democrats.
“Edwards is seen as more progressive while Van Hollen embodies the party establishment,” she said. “When it comes to most issues, they agree, but it’s a matter of what voters want their next senator to look like.”
Van Hollen is a proven party fundraiser who locked up endorsements from top Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) early in the race and presented himself to voters as an effective lawmaker with progressive but pragmatic values.
Edwards, who has been elected to four full terms, won her seat in a special election after the resignation of Rep. Albert R. Wynn, the establishment incumbent she defeated in the 2008 primary. She speaks from her personal narrative when talking about issues such as income inequality. To sustain her success, Eberly said, Edwards — like Sanders — has to “make the case for why the establishment isn’t the way to go.”
Edwards makes no secret of the historic fact that if elected she would be Maryland’s first black senator. African Americans are a huge chunk of the state’s party base and have “been repeatedly denied on the Democratic side of things of a nominee for statewide office,” Eberly said.
In one notable case, former congressman and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume lost the 2006 primary for an open U.S. Senate seat to Benjamin L. Cardin.
“I think there is a sense that given the diversity of the state rapidly moving to majority minority, the idea of electing another white establishment Democrat is not inspiring,” Eberly said.
Turnout for the primary is expected to be relatively high even though the Democratic presidential contest so far does not appear very competitive in Maryland.
The Goucher poll showed that 58 percent of likely Democratic voters said they would choose Clinton vs. 28 percent for Sanders — an increase of about 10 percentage points for Sanders since October.
About 12 percent said they were undecided.