In the end, the bitter Maryland Democratic Senate primary came down to this: Representative Donna Edwards, the exemplary progressive outsider, couldn’t defeat the ultimate insider, Representative Chris Van Hollen, the well-liked scion of the state’s Democratic establishment, with ties to big party donors he forged running its congressional campaign committee. To be fair, Van Hollen’s record is nearly as progressive as Edwards’s.
Nearly as progressive—but not quite. The insurgent Edwards would have been only the second African-American woman in history to serve in the Senate. Her campaign placed that argument front and center, and in the end, Van Hollen used it against her, with allies decrying “identity politics.” But in “a message to my beloved Democratic Party,” Edwards used her fiery concession speech to warn that Democrats “cannot celebrate inclusion and diversity” while snubbing the multiracial, majority-female base that elects its leaders. “Maryland is on the verge of having an all-male delegation in a so-called progressive state,” Edwards warned. The diverse and grieving crowd of Edwards diehards roared its anger. “Let’s hear it!” an older black woman shouted from the balcony.
As Hillary Clinton rides to the Democratic nomination on the strength of African-American support—and with the backing of almost 80 percent of black women in Democratic primaries—the Democratic Party’s candidate diversity is an issue that will define the party, and may divide it, in years to come. There was a stunning racial gap in the race: Van Hollen won three-quarters of white voters, while Edwards won almost two-thirds of blacks. And among voters who supported Clinton, he beat Edwards by 13 points.
Though polls showed Edwards leading Van Hollen as recently as three weeks ago, the weight of the Democratic machine came down behind him in big and small ways in the closing days. Local elected officials who endorsed him—and he had most of them—distributed Democratic “slates” that listed him, though he was never endorsed by any official party apparatus. Powerful Maryland Representative Steny Hoyer officially stayed neutral, but was widely perceived as supporting Van Hollen. The leaders of Maryland’s House of Delegates and state Senate formally endorsed him and threw their full support behind him. “She was up against the Democratic machine, and party leaders here hate—really hate—when minority candidates try to play up the historic aspect of their candidacy,” said former state delegate Gerron Levi, a staunch Edwards backer.
But Edwards was hurt by an ad, produced by the outside group Working for Us, that hit Van Hollen for his role in negotiating a bill that forced large political groups to disclose their donors, but exempted the National Rifle Association to win the support of moderates. If, as I wrote last month, Van Hollen’s willingness to entertain entitlement changes during budget negotiations represented the downside of his transactional, bipartisan approach, his work on the so-called Disclose Act showcased his skills, as the Democratic leadership strongly supported the legislation (it passed the House, but failed in the Senate). The ad—and Edwards’s claims about the Disclose Act on the stump—rang false, because Van Hollen has a strong record on gun control. Maybe most damaging, the ad featured a shot of Obama tearing up over the 2012 Sandy Hook killings, even though the president supported the bill—and it brought the president off the sidelines in the race, with a firm demand from the White House, leaked to Politico, to take his image out of the ad. The White House later acquiesced when Van Hollen used photos of himself with the president in mailers to Baltimore and Prince Georges County, which many Edwards supporters said hurt her with black voters.