By Tori Venable
Elm Staff Writer
This past Tuesday’s primary in Maryland determined more than just the Maryland delegate allocation for the presidential primaries. In 2016, the election also decided the nominee for the general election for who will fill Sen. Mikulski’s empty Senate seat. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who announced retirement plans last year, will have served for 30 years by the time she completes her current term, taking the title of the longest serving female Senator in our country’s history. Maryland Senators have a long history of serving as career politicians, holding their seats in Congress for decades, meaning the opportunity for Maryland politicos to compete for a Senate seat is rare and attracts fierce competition. Because of the heavy Democratic tilt in Maryland, the winner of this Democratic primary is likely to be triumphant in the November election, taking Mikulski’s seat.
As an overwhelmingly Democratic state, Maryland’s Senate race is far more competitive on the primary level for Democrats than Republicans. The Democratic race attracted 10 candidates with experience ranging from Congressmen to Mayors to simply past candidates. However, Democrats across Maryland were slated to be most torn between Rep. Donna Edwards and Rep. Chris Van Hollen. With nearly identical voting records, it’s hard to differentiate between Edwards and Van Hollen, and yet, this has been a polarizing race, touching on race, gender, and personality.
The White House and prominent national Democrats had weighed in on behalf of Van Hollen, even as Edwards supporters insisted that her opportunity to become only the second black female U.S. senator in history must not be denied. While established politicians in Maryland have endorsed Van Hollen, it is likely that Edwards will have the support of Baltimore City, giving her a rise to meet his advantage.
But with so little on record to distinguish these candidates, both found ways to highlight themselves based on personality or personal background.
Edwards emphasized her personal story as a single black mom to remind voters that she will act in the Senate with an “uncompromising brand of liberalism,” but critics said this would exacerbate the polarization on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, Van Hollen was running as a pragmatic deal-maker, promising to bring sensible progress in a Congress where compromise is increasingly a dirty word, an approach that opened him to attacks that he won’t protect core Democratic programs like Social Security. But for voters, many of whom have never met either candidate and are not interested in their personal history, this distinction wouldn’t be enough.
So the leading candidates aimed to draw strong policy distinctions between each other. Though their voting records run nearly parallel, Rep. Edwards’ campaign found a small distinction, and ran with it. Edwards used the little-known story about House Democrats including an exemption clause to their campaign disclosure bill of 2010, allowing a broad array of lobbying groups to be exempt from the mandated disclosure proposed in the drafted law, including the National Rifle Association. The goal of this exemption clause was to garner more support from colleagues so the disclosure bill would push through Congress and roll back the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. However, Edwards’ campaign used this deal with the NRA to highlight how Van Hollen wouldn’t stand up for gun reform, saying “nothing will change until we break the gun lobby’s stranglehold on Washington,” and “when my opponent and the NRA cut a backroom deal so they could keep buying off politicians, I called them on it, and we won,” referring to her vote against the bill.
The ad, airing throughout Maryland and Washington, attracted criticism from many Van Hollen supporters for framing his stance on gun control incorrectly. One version of the ad used video of President Obama speaking about the gun violence in America, leading the the Obama Administration to intervene in the airing of the ad, saying that Obama was
supportive of the DISCLOSE Act, including the compromised version that included the NRA carve-outs. Political director David Simas reached out to the Working For Us PAC, who sponsored the ad, and asked them to immediately take down the ad and stop using it going forward. Working for US PAC spokesman Joshua Henne followed up with a statement saying the group would delete Obama from the ad — but not pull the ad itself. According to Politico, many established Democrats were not supportive of the portrayal of Van Hollen’s gun policy in these ads. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called it “dishonest” and “shameful,” and argued it “should be taken down.”
Whether or not the gun control ads fairly portrayed Van Hollen’s past record with gun control or his presumed future, the story of Rep. Chris Van Hollen drafting legislation that compromised with NRA carve outs in order to pass discloser mandates and Rep. Donna Edwards voting against this meet-in-the-middle bill, hits directly on the core difference between the lawmakers and candidates. Rep. Chris Van Hollen points to his record of passing legislation by reaching compromises that attract the support of members on both sides of the aisle, while Rep. Donna Edwards insists that she will serve in Senate as an unwavering defendant of liberal ideology, standing strong for what she believes in. Maybe the candidates want you to see them for their personal attributes, an experienced legislator and family man, or an African American single mom who will bring diversity to Congress, but at the end of the (primary) day, voters looked to their styles of lawmaking and decided which would better serve the state of Maryland in this political atmosphere.