Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D) wants to make history as the first black female senator from Maryland. But she is struggling to find the money to compete with her primary rival, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, whose connections with donors in the state and nationwide have helped him build a formidable war chest.
By the end of September, Van Hollen, whose congressional district is based in Montgomery County, had $4.1 million in the bank. Edwards, who represents Prince George’s County and part of Anne Arundel County, had $368,500. The next round of financial disclosures is due Jan. 31.
Van Hollen has spent nearly $1 million since October on television advertising in Baltimore, where he and Edwards are not well known. But with less than four months to go until the April 26 primary, Edwards has not aired a single commercial. Campaign finance records suggest that she is struggling to pay staff salaries and come up with money for other basics in her quest to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D).
“It’s an enormous problem for her,” said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. “She can’t finance as many ads as Van Hollen can . . . [and] he got [to Baltimore] first. She’s going to have trouble catching up.”
The challenge, according to those who know Edwards, is that during her years in Congress, she has positioned herself as an outsider, bucking the establishment and spending relatively little time building a donor base.
Maryland’s Democratic electorate is about 40 percent African American, and black women have turned out at higher rates than any other demographic group in the past two presidential elections. But Van Hollen, who is white, has spent his years in office building solid relationships with political leaders across racial lines.
Edwards does have strong backing from the powerful Democratic women’s group Emily’s List, which is airing commercials on her behalf in Baltimore and has pledged to spend at least $1 million on that effort. But outside groups pay higher rates for such ads than candidates, meaning that Van Hollen is getting more air time for his expenditures. And it is extremely rare for a politician to win federal office after a campaign financed almost entirely by outside groups.
Edwards, who declined to be interviewed for this article, raised $638,520 in late summer. But she spent more than she took in. Her dire financial situation was at the core of a fundraising message she sent to supporters in an email last month.
“My opponent has outraised us by millions of dollars — and if we don’t catch up, and fast, we will lose our shot,” the email said.
The most recent polling, conducted by the Baltimore Sun after Van Hollen’s commercials began airing, gives him a 14-point lead with likely primary voters, even though Edwards is ahead among black respondents by 21 points.
Edwards prides herself on forging her own path — an attitude that wins her some fans but also can alienate potential supporters. She made establishment enemies in 2011 when she opposed a redistricting plan that favored Maryland Democrats, and again in 2012 when she backed now-Rep. John Delaney over a state lawmaker in a contentious primary. She has been critical of policies regarding Israel, angering some Jewish donors.
“Donna has always kind of been her own woman — she wasn’t someone who would pal around at party events with our donors,” said Matt Verghese, a former state party staff member who wrote an analysis of the third-quarter fundraising reports for the blog Maryland Juice 2.0. “She values being outside the party mainstream . . . and I think that’s made it hard for her to come out and raise money.”
Maryland is not a swing state that would draw a lot of money from national fundraising groups. And unlike the moderate Democrat whom Edwards unseated in 2008, Van Hollen shares most of Edwards’s liberal positions, which could limit the involvement of left-leaning advocacy groups. In addition, Edwards is not the only woman of color running for the Senate — Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and California Attorney General Kamala Harris share that spotlight.
The national liberal groups Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are backing Edwards. They have directed only small amounts of money her way, though in the case of the PCCC, those small donations have added up to more than $50,000.
A spokeswoman for Emily’s List said that the outcome of the contest will not rest on fundraising alone. “This is a race that’s going to be won on message, on whose voice needs to be heard the most,” spokeswoman Jess McIntosh said, adding that her organization “can do a lot to even the playing field.”
Although no one in Maryland’s congressional delegation has endorsed either primary candidate, more than a dozen political action committees and more than 100 donors who have supported Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) in the past are backing Van Hollen. Several major donors to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House Democratic whip whose district includes parts of Prince George’s County, have given to Van Hollen, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Benjamin Gerdes, the communications director for Edwards, described her supporters in Maryland as “workers struggling to make ends meet.”
“They’re giving what they can because they believe in this campaign and in a woman who will fight every single day to level the playing field for Maryland’s middle-class families,” he said.
Edwards’s home turf of Prince George’s County, while still the nation’s highest-income majority-black county, was hit hard by the financial crisis and lags far behind its wealthy white neighbors. And Edwards can’t count on power brokers in her district to help get out the vote; both County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and state Sen. Joanne C. Benson are backing Van Hollen.
“When people meet her they like her, but she’s less well known in the donor circles,” said Patricia Bauman, an Edwards supporter and prominent Democratic donor. “I think it’s hard for women to raise money; I think it’s particularly hard for black women to raise money.”
Edwards may have been hurt by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings’s public flirtations with entering the race. Cummings (D), a popular congressman from Baltimore who is African American, has not made a final decision. “I think it has had some negative impact on Donna’s ability to raise money,” said Valerie Ervin, a former Montgomery County Council member who is backing Edwards.
Along with courting state politicians, Van Hollen has neutralized some of Edwards’s potential national support. J Street, a liberal Jewish group, says it is backing both candidates. The AFL-CIO will not endorse. The Service Employees International Union, which helped Edwards win her House seat, is now behind Van Hollen. Leaders said Edwards has not been responsive to their needs in Congress.
Van Hollen’s campaign has sent letters to Emily’s List donors, touting his record with women and accusing the Edwards campaign of misleading tactics. (Emily’s List, in turn, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing Van Hollen of illegally targeting its donors.) Van Hollen’s supporters in the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women tried to keep the group from endorsing Edwards and protested publicly when it did.
In addition to events with Emily’s List, Edwards spoke at Netroots Nation last year and at the spring meeting of Democracy Alliance, a group of rich liberal donors. She has been using free, online media platforms to try to reach younger women, doing interviews with the fashion-based Refinery29, Lena Dunham’s newsletter Lenny and the millennial-focused Mic.
Correction: Earlier versions of this article misidentified Matt Vergese as a staffer with the state Democratic Party. He is a former staffer. The article has been corrected.