Maryland Congressional candidate Donna Edwards did not need a memo from a pollster to tell her the subprime mortgage crisis would be an issue in her 2008 race. Campaigning on the doorsteps and at Metro stops of her racially and economically diverse suburban Washington district, she heard women talking last summer about how a credit crunch might cost them their homes. Edwards, one of a new breed of savvy policy wonks and strategists who are leaving the public-interest community to bid for major elected office, knew how to respond. Months before Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama began promising to fight to keep middle-class families in their homes–and with an urgency that is still missing from the response of House and Senate Democratic leaders–Edwards called for radically revising the 2005 bankruptcy bill as part of a plan to protect homeowners from financial ruin.
It didn’t hurt that the incumbent Democrat she’s challenging in Maryland’s February 12 primary, eight-term Congressman Albert Wynn, voted for the bankruptcy bill, favored by commercial banks, which have contributed $185,917 to his campaign. But for Edwards, this was about more than political positioning. “Prince Georges County has the highest rate of foreclosures in Maryland, and my ZIP code has the highest rate of foreclosures in the county,” says Edwards, a veteran activist on issues of concern to women and working families. “When I talk about why we need a different kind of Democrat in Congress–someone who sides with consumers, not corporate interests–people understand exactly what I’m talking about.”
Score another point for Edwards. With support from the Service Employees International Union and other key unions, environmental groups and liberal activists with Democracy for America and Progressive Democrats of America, she is given a fair chance of upsetting Wynn, a corporate-friendly Democrat who voted to authorize Bush to attack Iraq, pass Vice President Cheney’s energy bill and protect pharmaceutical companies from consumer-friendly reforms.
The Edwards-Wynn race is a bellwether contest in the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party. That fight is at least as likely to be determined in this year’s Congressional primaries as in a stilted race for the presidency, where both Clinton and Obama are eyeing the middle ground they expect to occupy in the fall. These local primaries have national importance, as they could answer an essential question: will a Democratic Party that muddled its message after gaining control of Congress in 2006 advance a progressive brief in the post-Bush era?
No matter what happens in the presidential race, Democrats are likely to finish 2008 in a stronger position than they started. Acknowledging the inevitable at the start of an election season in which their President’s approval ratings are in the dumps and a nasty recession is taking shape, House and Senate Republicans are retiring at dramatically high rates. Open-seat contests across the country are ripe for partisan shifts in a year when voters tell pollsters they’re inclined toward candidates with a D after their name. In addition, vulnerable Republican incumbents face stiff challenges. So it is that Democrats, who now hold a bare 51-to-49 majority in the Senate–relying uncomfortably on Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman’s tenuous allegiance to their causes–speak of picking up open Republican seats in Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia and of defeating Republican incumbents such as Minnesota’s Norm Coleman and New Hampshire’s John Sununu. And so House Democrats look to pad their thirty-one-seat majority, with good prospects of gaining seats GOP incumbents have abandoned in the recession-wary states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.