Rep. Donna F. Edwards wants her supporters to know that one of the most powerful Democrats in Maryland backs her opponent in the state’s Democratic Senate primary. In particular, she wants them to know that Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. thinks Rep. Chris Van Hollen was “born to the job.”
“Born to the job?” she wrote Tuesday in a fundraising email. “The fact is, our country’s systems and institutions have largely been led by people who have always looked like that senior elected official, not like me. . . . I don’t believe anyone in this country was born to anything.”
Edwards was referring to Miller’s description of Van Hollen in an interview with The Washington Post: “In terms of a leader who has been born to the job — his parents were in the diplomatic service, he and his wife are Capitol Hill staffers who have risen to prominence on Capitol Hill by virtue of hard work and determination,” Miller (D-Calvert) said.
The congresswoman’s response to those words is emblematic of the case she has made to voters throughout her campaign, and echoes in some ways the strategy of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont as he challenges establishment favorite Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Van Hollen, a former state lawmaker, seven-term congressman and former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has won endorsements from politicians and groups across Maryland. Edwards, an African American single mother who was elected to Congress in 2008 and has held several leadership positions, is trying to use those endorsements to underscore her status as an outsider.
“I don’t listen to that type of talk and to that kind of entitlement,” Edwards wrote in the fundraising email. “Our campaign is about giving everyone a fair shot, everyone a voice, and not allowing the same old ‘rules’ and ‘next turns’ stop us from what we believe is right.”
Edwards likes to note that there has been only one African American woman elected to the Senate: Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, in 1992. She included that fact in Tuesday’s email.
Her contention that it’s time to elect a second has resonated with primary voters in Maryland, a large percentage of whom are black women. She leads Van Hollen in the most recent poll, by the Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore. Other recent surveys have the two candidates tied.
Van Hollen’s campaign argues that he has won his endorsements — from female and black officials and activists as well as white men, such as Miller — not because he’s an insider but because he’s effective. He has the support of twice as many African American elected officials and four times as many female officials in the state as Edwards.
On Tuesday, the Van Hollen campaign responded to Edwards’s message with a statement from one of those officials, state Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore).
“African American and women state and local elected leaders across Maryland are standing with Chris Van Hollen because we know he’ll fight for the issues that are important to us,” Conway said. “Donna Edwards may say the right thing, but she doesn’t get results at the end of the day.”
Miller, in his comments to The Post, also emphasized Van Hollen’s accomplishments in the state legislature and in Congress, saying, “He gets along with everybody and works the bills, gets them to the floor.”
With regards to the presidential race, Sanders has failed to gain much traction so far in Maryland, where Clinton is very popular. Both Edwards and Van Hollen have endorsed her campaign.
But the populist rhetoric of Edwards, who says the Senate needs an outsider rather than a pragmatic dealmaker, echoes what Sanders has been saying on the stump.
Edwards has pointed to Van Hollen’s support for past free-trade deals as a mark against him, just as Sanders has criticized Clinton’s support for trade pacts while she was first lady, a senator and secretary of state.
Sanders says Clinton is beholden to big banks and Wall Street, and Edwards repeatedly refers to Van Hollen as a “Wall Street Democrat” — although neither she nor Van Hollen is taking funds from Wall Street political action committees, and the congressman has pushed for tighter regulation of the financial industry.
Still, it’s not clear whether an anti-establishment sentiment is motivating voters in Maryland. In the recent Baltimore Sun-University of Baltimore poll, Van Hollen does better with self-described progressives than conservatives or moderates. Edwards does best among African Americans, and Van Hollen’s base is among white voters.
White voters in the survey are also more likely to identify as progressives, suggesting that race might be a bigger factor than ideology in the contest. Those voter subgroups are relatively small, however, and thus the samples have large margins of error.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.