Baltimore —It’s a Saturday morning in early March, and a multiracial group of Unite Here Local 7 members are playing an organizing game. Split into three teams, they’re trying to figure out why sky-high hotel prices in some cities don’t translate into higher wages for hotel workers. (Hint: Low-wage cities like Baltimore don’t have strong unions.) The crowd is laughing and arguing as Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards slips into the room.
“Shhh… No!” she says, when a union staffer offers to bring her to the front to speak. Instead, Edwards joins a raucous team—cooks at Camden Yards, croupiers at the Horseshoe Casino, and housekeepers at the pricey Harbor hotels—as they try to figure out which US city has the highest-paid hotel workers. (It turns out to be New York.)
Only when the exercise ends does Edwards spring up to address the crowd about her insurgent bid to replace Senator Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring after five terms. “I was so excited to participate with my group—and we got it right on the wages!” she boasts with a broad smile.
Edwards had gotten some other good news that morning: A new Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll showed her leading her main rival, liberal Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, by 10 points in a head-to-head race. (Several other candidates are running but have only single-digit support. Update: A more recent Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found Edwards up by 4 points.) The race didn’t start out like this. Back in November, Edwards was trailing Van Hollen by 14 points—even among women voters—and losing much more decisively with a crucial Democratic constituency: donors. By the end of 2015, Van Hollen had outraised her by roughly 10 to one.
A narrative had taken hold, too: Edwards, the progressive woman, was a firebrand outsider and big talker, while Van Hollen was a quiet doer, bringing benefits to his district and working across the aisle with Republicans. Democrats outside of Maryland were introduced to the race last May in apocalyptic terms in Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine article “The Great Democratic Crack-Up of 2016.” The Maryland primary battle, Draper argued, was shaping up to be a tale of the Left Gone Wild, with the “pugnacious” Edwards challenging the reliable, hardworking Van Hollen over what Draper described as minor policy differences—chiefly that in 2012, Van Hollen had endorsed the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission’s “framework” as “the right way to go” to achieve a bipartisan budget deal. The commission called for reductions and restructuring in Social Security and Medicare—the favorite solution of deficit hawks, but complete nonstarters with progressives. In November of 2012, Van Hollen told The Wall Street Journal that he was “willing to consider all of these ideas as part of an overall plan,” including increases to Medicare’s eligibility age. Hailing this “arithmetical common sense,” The Washington Post endorsed him this past March, calling Edwards “part of the problem in Washington.” Draper framed the Edwards insurgency more starkly, quoting Jon Cowan of the centrist group Third Way: “What is at stake in the Maryland Senate primary is literally nothing less than whether we will Tea Party the Democratic Party.”