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Race, Gender Roil Maryland Senate Democratic Primary

U.S. Senate candidate, Rep. Donna Edwards, M-Md., visits with voters at Leisure World in Silver Spring, Md.
Brian Witte
U.S. Senate candidate, Rep. Donna Edwards, M-Md., visits with voters at Leisure World in Silver Spring, Md.

When it comes to policy, there are few differences between the two candidates locked in a bitter fight in Maryland's Democratic Senate primary. But as individuals, there are big ones — Rep. Chris Van Hollen is a white man running to succeed the longest-serving woman ever in the Senate, while Rep. Donna Edwards is running to be just the second African-American woman ever to serve in the upper chamber.

And as the race reaches a crescendo with Tuesday's primary — which in this traditionally blue state is likely to pick the successor to retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski — the contest has turned on identity politics and how much race and gender should influence a voter's choice.

Edwards hasn't shied away from her personal story, which many in the state can relate to.

"We have not had an African-American woman senator for 17 years, and that's just not acceptable," said Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for EMILY's List, the pro-abortion rights group that's spent $3.4 million supporting Edwards. "Donna's perspective as a single mom, someone who went to Planned Parenthood for her health care, someone who had to talk with her son about how to interact with law enforcement — that's exactly the kind of profile we need in the Senate."

Both Candidates Target the African-American Vote

"Race does matter," Edwards said during one debate. "It's time that we had the ability to speak for ourselves."

In Maryland especially, it's a message Edwards hopes resonates. Just a year ago, Baltimore was rocked by the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died from injuries sustained while in police custody. Riots enveloped the city for days. Charges were filed against several of the officers involved; one trial resulted in a mistrial when the jury couldn't reach a verdict, and other trials will resume next month.

More than 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in Maryland is expected to be African-American. Turnout is likely to be especially high in the city of Baltimore, where there's a competitive mayoral primary featuring two black women as the front-runners.

"It's not that the black community doesn't like Chris Van Hollen. The issue is that there's little ideological daylight between the two," said Mileah Kromer, a professor of political science and a pollster at Goucher College in Baltimore. "Now you have an opportunity to send someone who actually looks like you to the Senate, and that's not lost on a lot of black women in Baltimore City."

The presidential nominating contest is also on the ballot, and that is also expected to boost turnout. And one of the most reliable voting blocs for Hillary Clinton (whom both Van Hollen and Edwards support) has been black women. Earlier polls have shown a close race for Senate, but a Monmouth University survey last week gave Van Hollen a double-digit advantage.

"The hardcore voters who come out every single election cycle are older, African-American women. Those are people right now who are breaking for Edwards," Kromer said. "She has certainly benefited from the intersection of race and gender in this election."

Arguing Competence Over Identity

Van Hollen's main argument is his experience of a different sort. An ambitious legislator who rose up the ranks in Maryland's state capital and then repeated that climb in Washington to join the Democratic leadership, Van Hollen has represented the affluent D.C. suburbs for a decade in Congress. Van Hollen has far out-raised Edwards, out-paced her in advertising and is hoping his sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation can top hers on Tuesday.

There's a competence argument Van Hollen and his supporters have been making in the final stretch, too. His ads have questioned Edwards' effectiveness in Congress and ability to work with others. The Washington Post, in endorsing Van Hollen, criticized Edwards' "aloofness from the details of local problem-solving and for running an office notorious for inattention to constituent services and teamwork." The Edwards campaign pushed back on such criticism Friday in a conference call with reporters, with her supporters arguing such charges are sexist.

Edwards received few endorsements from her colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus. Her campaign has said that's not surprising though, given she got to Congress in 2008 by knocking off CBC member Albert Wynn in a primary. Wynn sits on the board of the CBC's political action committee, which didn't endorse Edwards. Her most high-profile African-American endorsement came last week from Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who is leading the prosecution against the officers in Grey's death.

Edwards' supporters say that the Democrat has every right to campaign on both her gender and her race.

"What is she supposed to do?" asked Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. "She has to run as a woman, and she has to run as an African-American woman....We have a right to talk about her background and a right to say that women are grossly underrepresented."

"These complaints that, oh, she doesn't schmooze or she doesn't know 'how to get along with people,' that's flat out sexist," argued Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. "It's quite subtle in its sexism, but it is flat out sexist."

Van Hollen's campaign put out its own list last week of 100 African-American women leaders in the state who are backing his candidacy over Edwards.

"We are mindful of our natural affinity with Chris Van Hollen's opponent and the paucity of racial and gender diversity in the U.S. Senate. But after thoughtful consideration and objective analysis of the track records of the candidates, our choice was obvious: we must support Chris Van Hollen," they wrote in the letter.

One of those signers was Van Hollen's state co-chairman Yvette Lewis, the former head of the Maryland Democratic Party. She told NPR in an interview that her decision on whom to support was based on experience and accomplishments, not race or gender.

"It was not about a demographic for me. Just because someone doesn't look like me doesn't necessarily mean they won't do what's best for me," Lewis said. "It wasn't based on emotion. It was based on cold, hard facts. He doesn't have to look like the people he represents in order to represent them effectively."

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.