Formidable Foe

To win the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, Chris Van Hollen must defeat popular Rep. Donna Edwards from Prince George’s County




Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards once shared representation of Montgomery County, and they have many of the same liberal views on key issues. Whether one is more left-leaning than the other has become a source of contention since Edwards jumped into the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in March, barely a week after Van Hollen announced.

Edwards, a 57-year-old attorney, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a 2008 special election after co-founding the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She became the first African-American woman to represent Maryland in Congress. Originally elected in a Prince George’s County-based district that included a significant portion of eastern and northern Montgomery County, her district lost its Montgomery constituents when redrawn in 2011.

Like Van Hollen, Edwards has held roles in the House Democratic leadership, most recently as co-chair of the influential Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. But in contrast to the amiable and often conciliatory Van Hollen, Edwards is regarded as a combative personality who at times has been at odds with her colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus and with the leadership of the Maryland Democratic Party.

Edwards’ voting record put her in a tie for most liberal House member in National Journal’s ratings for 2011 through 2013. Early in her Senate campaign, she took a swipe at Van Hollen’s progressive bona fides when she released a video vowing to fight cutbacks in Social Security and Medicare. It was an allusion to a 2012 televised interview in which Van Hollen characterized the so-called Simpson-Bowles commission plan (which envisioned cuts in federal entitlements) as the “framework” for a deal to reduce federal deficits.

In response, Van Hollen has pointed to his sponsorship of legislation to expand Social Security benefits through increased taxes on higher-income individuals. But in a primary in which progressive activists are likely to cast votes in high numbers, Edwards’ criticisms have prompted Van Hollen to repeatedly highlight his liberal credentials on issues such as the environment and gun control going back to his days in the Maryland Legislature, while taking some not-so-subtle swipes at Edwards’ record.

“It’s not enough just to cast a vote a certain way,” he tells Democratic gatherings, such as one in southern Maryland late last summer. “At the end of the day, what we all care about in politics is actually delivering results. One of the reasons Nancy Pelosi asked me to be assistant to the speaker when the Democrats got the majority was because of my work doing that.”

If Edwards and Van Hollen have spent the first phase of the campaign as the two major Democratic contenders, both of their paths to the Senate could be obstructed if Elijah Cummings, who has kept the state Democratic establishment guessing for months, gets into the contest before the Feb. 3 filing deadline.

The 64-year-old Cummings is the other African-American member of the Maryland congressional delegation. He has gained statewide visibility—and positive marks—for two somewhat disparate roles he has played in recent months. As ranking Democrat on the House select committee investigating the 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, he has aggressively challenged Republican accusations. Meanwhile, he has been a frequent presence on the streets of his native Baltimore, urging calm in the wake of last spring’s rioting in that city.

Whoever wins the April 26 Democratic primary will be an overwhelming favorite to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski. Despite Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s upset victory last year, the 2016 presidential election is expected to draw a heavy Democratic turnout in a state where Democrats enjoy a 2-1 registration edge.

On the GOP side, state Del. Kathy Szeliga, 54, of Baltimore County is currently seen as the front-runner: The House minority whip announced her candidacy in November after being urged to run by several leading Republicans. But two other well-known Maryland Republicans have taken a pass on the contest.

After commissioning a poll, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, 53, a former state senator, announced in mid-January that he would remain in his current post, to which he first won election in 2014. A month earlier, a Montgomery County resident, former Maryland Secretary of State Mary Kane, 53, opted out after considering running. Kane, who lives in Potomac and is now president of Washington-based Sister Cities International, was former Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s lieutenant gubernatorial running mate in 2010. Her husband, former state Republican Chairman John Kane, owns the Kane Co., an office moving firm.

Besides Szeliga, those already announced for the GOP Senate primary include Richard Douglas, 59, a former Defense Department official who lives in College Park, and Chrysovalantis “Chrys” Kefalas, 36, a Baltimore attorney who works for the National Association of Manufacturers after earlier serving as an aide to Ehrlich.

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