BALTIMORE — Donna Edwards bounded up the walkways of more than a dozen modest homes in a largely African-American neighborhood here on a recent Saturday afternoon, posing for photos and sharing a simple message: I’m just like you.
The Democratic congresswoman running for Senate reminded one family that she, too, is a single mom. She talked about working minimum wage jobs earlier in her life, and lacking health insurance.
Six months ago, Edwards was an afterthought in the Democratic primary to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski. The race was Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s to lose — a star in House Democratic leadership, he would swamp the field with his fundraising and big-name endorsements, the thinking went.
But as the April 26 primary approaches, Edwards has pulled even or possibly slightly ahead of Van Hollen in one of the most hotly contested Democratic primaries of 2016. She has moved the needle with an explicit appeal to African-American voters, who typically make up about two-fifths of the electorate in Maryland Democratic primaries.
A Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll last month had Edwards 10 points up. Van Hollen’s campaign countered with internal polling last week showing him up slightly.
Edwards is trumpeting the historic nature of her candidacy — she would be the first African-American woman in the Senate since the 1990s — and outside groups are playing up her personal background in ads in the pivotal D.C. media market.
“It is the rationale for my running for the Senate seat … it’s about the perspective, the unique perspective that I would bring to the Senate,” Edwards said in an interview. “What people are saying is that I walked in their shoes. I walked in their shoes as a working person … as an African-American woman … as a mom.”
The message is aimed squarely at African-Americans and women, the former breaking heavily for Edwards in recent polls. The recent Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore survey found that two-thirds of black voters support Edwards, to just 16 percent for Van Hollen. Among white voters, the survey showed Van Hollen with a 22-point edge.
Van Hollen’s challenge is to eat into Edwards’ advantage with African-American voters and run up the score in the suburbs of Washington — he represents Montgomery County outside of D.C. — and Baltimore. He’s betting that his rival’s focus on race and gender will fall flat with many voters who are used to Mikulski, a bipartisan deal-maker with sky-high popularity after three decades in the Senate.
Van Hollen, a lawyer and former state legislator who was first elected to the House in 2002, says Edwards’ scant support from elected Democrats in her own backyard shows she doesn’t play well with others. He’s trying to frame the race as a contest of competency and the ability to move an agenda, banking on African-American voters looking favorably upon his roster of endorsements from black community leaders.
“If you look throughout the state of Maryland at progressives who have focused on getting results, they are strongly backing me,” Van Hollen said. “If you look at the people who live in the areas that have been represented by both myself and Congresswoman Edwards, I’ve got very strong support. … A lot of mayors, African-American women who are leaders in their towns, are backing me really strongly.”
His campaign notes that Van Hollen has the backing of four times as many female elected officials from Maryland, and twice as many African American elected officials, as Edwards does.
Baltimore City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young, a Van Hollen supporter, called Edwards’ emphasis on “identity politics” misplaced. “I don’t think skin color should matter when you’re looking at who can get things done,” he said in an interview.
Edwards and Van Hollen have traded leads in polls over the past month, and both sides are bracing for a nail-biter. As the race has tightened, the once-placid primary between the two 57-year-old lawmakers has become increasingly biting.
Van Hollen criticizes what he calls Edwards’ thin résumé on Capitol Hill, painting her as a partisan bomb-thrower who has shown little ability or interest in working across the aisle to get something done.
Edwards, in turn, casts Van Hollen as an accommodating moderate. She says he was willing to cut entitlement programs in order to clinch a budget deal with Republicans. And she’s slamming him for supporting past trade deals, a potent line of attack among liberals as Congress prepares to take up a massive trade deal next year.
“There are differences when it comes to things like Social Security. Mr. Van Hollen has demonstrated that when push comes to shove that he’s willing to compromise on cuts to Social Security and Medicare,” Edwards said. “I think those are nonstarters.”
Ideologically, though, there’s little daylight between the two: They’re both progressives with liberal views on abortion, labor and the environment. Each has quickly ascended the ranks of Democratic leadership. Van Hollen is the top Democrat on the influential Budget Committee and was seen as a logical successor to Minority Leader Nancy Pelsoi (D-Calif.) before he decided to ditch his seat to run for Senate. Edwards is a chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, a panel that is appointed by Pelosi.
In fact, the two are so similar that Edwards was once a key player in a scheme to put Van Hollen on a path to lead House Democrats if Pelosi were to retire. When asked about her role in that plan, Edwards said last week there are different qualifications for being a senator than a party leader in the House.
Where they do part ways is in their styles as legislators. Van Hollen is more of a deal-maker: He was tapped to help steer high-stakes negotiations on the budget and Obamacare. Edwards is more ideologically pure and has a less expansive record in Washington.
The Congressional Black Caucus PAC declined to endorse Edwards because of her at-times acrimonious relationship with the group. However, individual members of the caucus, such as Illinois Rep. Robin Kelly, are behind her.
She’s also unlikely to be endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, sources say, despite being a member of that group. She is backed, however, by Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, two leading progressive groups.
Edwards’ aides say they knew going in she would lose the battle for money and endorsements. The way to pull off an upset, they concluded, was by focusing on her biography — before running for office, she raised a son on her own, earned a law degree and served as the head of a group that helps battered women — and energizing the progressive base.
“We had to tap into a different type of organization and build a different type of network outside the Maryland political world, because that belongs to [Van Hollen],” one Edwards aide said.
Both sides intend to flood the airwaves in the final weeks of the campaign. Van Hollen has purchased close to $600,000 in ad time for the final two weeks in the Baltimore media market. On Monday, Edwards’ campaign announced a $156,000 ad buy in Baltimore this week.
Edwards’ campaign is getting an enormous boost from EMILY’s List, the progressive group that works to elect women to Congress. The group’s PAC has spent at least $2.4 million backing Edwards, helping to compensate for a major fundraising deficit. In 2015, Van Hollen raised $6.3 million to Edwards’ $2.1 million.
Both camps are also focusing heavily on the ground game. A Van Hollen aide said the campaign has made nearly 320,000 calls and knocked on 55,000 doors in Prince George’s and Baltimore counties. He’s appeared at more than 100 events in Baltimore, where the race could very well be decided.
During a recent trip to the Park Heights neighborhood in Baltimore, Van Hollen met with students who were learning a trade at a local technical school. He toured a troubled neighborhood that’s seen liquor stores replace traditional shops along the main thoroughfare. It was the type of place, Van Hollen said, he would focus on if elected.
Edwards’ team has set a goal to knock on another 60,000 doors in Baltimore before Election Day.
There’s one wild card with the potential to alter the course of the campaign in the final weeks. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the popular African-American Democrat from Baltimore who himself flirted with running for the Senate seat, has remained neutral but said recently he’s considering throwing his weight behind one of the contenders.
“Both of them are connecting,” Cummings said. “I’ll take a look at it [and] figure it out.”
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