In a race that differed more in style and symbolism than political positions — and in a race that many predicted would be decided by a razor-thin margin — voters in the Maryland Democratic primary left no doubt who they want to fill the Senate seat of soon-to- retire Barbara Mikulski.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who will square off against Baltimore County Del. Kathy Szeliga in November’s general election, surprisingly earned 53 percent of the vote, to Rep. Donna Edwards’ 39 percent.
Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump won their parties’ presidential primaries in Maryland.
In the contest between the two liberal Senate candidates, Van Hollen was cast as the establishment deal-maker and Edwards as the outside activist who would bring the experiences of a single African-American mother into the all-white, mostly male Senate.
Edwards struck a defiant tone in her concession speech, telling her boisterous supporters at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 26 in Lanham, “Democracy is not about money, it’s about the American people. We can do better as a country. We can do better as a state.”
Her message to the Democratic Party: “You cannot show up Election Day and call that post-racial inclusion.”
In his victory speech at the Bethesda Marriott, Van Hollen reminded his supporters of what the Democrats are capable of doing.
“In the first two years of [Barack] Obama’s presidency, we did great things,” he said. “It’s easy to forget those days, but the economy was sinking by a lot. We were losing 700,000 jobs every month in this country. And President Obama and the Democratic Congress passed the economic recovery bill.”
He praised the passing of the Affordable Care Act and said that as a senator, he would work toward ending gun violence and reducing mass incarceration.
“We have 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the prison population. That is not right in America. We’re going to change that,” he said.
On Trump’s Maryland victory, Van Hollen said the billionaire is trying to “pit people against each other based on religion or ethnicity or race. That is not who we are in the United States of America.”
During a last-minute campaign stop at the Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring, Van Hollen reflected on the intensity of the race but expressed optimism at his chances.
“There’s a lot of drama, and that’s why it’s important to talk to voters to the very end. I’m a big believer that you battle for every vote,” he said. “I think the word is getting out, and we’ve got momentum. But you can’t stop until you run across the finish line.”
In the yearlong race, Van Hollen, 57, was considered the “establishment” candidate and Edwards, also 57, the champion of minorities and low-income Marylanders. The organized Jewish community came out strongly for Van Hollen, believing that he was the more successful legislator and that Edwards was insufficiently pro-Israel.
Edwards was one of a handful of members of Congress who did not sign a letter asking Obama to veto any action by the United Nations deemed “biased against Israel.” Van Hollen signed the letter.
Edwards also faced criticism early in her time in the House, in 2009, when she voted against condemning the U.N.’s Goldstone Report, which accused members of the Israel Defense Forces of human rights violations during the Gaza War. Van Hollen voted to denounce the report, which was later disputed by its lead author.
At the Van Hollen campaign party early Tuesday night, Charles Heller of Rockville was waiting for the results. He said his biggest priorities are health care, gun control and fiscal responsibility.
Van Hollen is the “best person with the best track record,” he said. “I have no confidence in Edwards because she has no track record and she’s made accusations that Van Hollen is supporting the NRA, which is not true.”
Allison Wohl of Bethesda said she hopes Van Hollen will fill the void as a champion of disability rights in the Senate left by the retirement of Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
“All things equal, I would have loved to see a woman take this seat, but things aren’t equal, and Van Hollen deserves a seat. He’s been an amazing congressman, and he’s a better legislator. He’ll represent Maryland better,” she said.
At the Edwards party, volunteer Jeff Kaloc was waiting to hear the results.
“If elected, she’s going to be tough, really take charge and be a voice for the American people, the working-class Americans,” said Kaloc, an Edwards volunteer. “I have a personal connection [with Edwards] because I also grew up in a single mother household. That, in itself, is a struggle. As an average citizen, it’s phenomenal. For a candidate like her, it’s just extraordinary.”
The race had become so heated that it even attracted the attention of Israeli entertainment mogul Haim Saban, who contributed $100,000 to Van Hollen’s super PAC, according to online publication The Intercept.
Edwards received $2 million from super PAC Women Vote! — a part of Emily’s List that contributes to the campaigns of pro-choice Democratic women.
“Fundamentally, we shouldn’t be electing people because of gender,” said state Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-District 17), who has known Van Hollen since their time together in the Maryland General Assembly. “I didn’t ask people to vote for me because I [am] a woman. I thought I could be most effective and a lot more consistent in my advocacy than my opponents.”
Tuesday also marked the end of one of the most expensive House races in the country, the bid to succeed Van Hollen in District 8. Democratic candidate David Trone spent $12 million of his own money on the race. But the contest was won by state Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-District 20), beating out a slate of challengers including former TV reporter and Marriott executive Kathleen Matthews.
Matthews and Raskin were out campaigning at Leisure World Tuesday morning. Raskin, one of two Jews in the race, said he felt positive about the turnout and his campaign but was also a “nervous wreck.” He said he thinks that despite the amount of money being spent on the race, it is experience that matters most to voters.
“What I love about democracy is the wisdom of crowds, and people understand that public office is something that you earn,” he said. “It’s not something that you buy, and I think we’re going to see a massive rejection of money politics and a vindication of grassroots progressive politics.”
Matthews said she was proud of her campaign’s grassroots fundraising efforts from approximately 10,000 women, which she said mostly gave small donations of under $100.
“I’ve been in this race for 11 months, and from the very beginning I wanted to run a broad-based grassroots campaign,” she said. “For me that meant doing about 100 meet and greets.”
“It meant knocking on more than 150,000 doors,” she added, “with 25 candidate forums that were hosted by a huge range of grassroots groups, ethnic groups and religious groups.”