As Barbara Mikulski makes way, Democratic women suffer election losses

Md. poised to send all-male delegation to Congress for the first time since '71.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in Congress, has spent much of her tenure in politics encouraging other women to run for office, speaking regularly and forcefully on the value she says diversity brings to policymaking.

But the results of Tuesday's primary election have underscored the challenges confronting that effort, even in her home state: With Mikulski leaving Congress, and Rep. Donna F. Edwards coming up short in her bid to take Mikulski's place in the Senate, Maryland now faces the possibility of sending an all-male congressional delegation to Washington next year for the first time since 1971.

"That would be a disappointing moment," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "To kind of see that era pass would be sad," she said.

While Hillary Clinton won Maryland's Democratic primary for president Tuesday, Democratic women in the state lost primary bids in three congressional races.

Republican women in Maryland fared better Tuesday. Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County beat a dozen men to clinch the GOP nod for Senate. And Amie Hoeber won her party's nomination to take on Democratic Rep. John Delaney in Maryland's 6th Congressional District.

But in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1 — and hasn't elected a Republican senator since 1980 — Szeliga faces an uphill battle in the November election. And Hoeber will be taking on an incumbent running for a third term in the House in a district that was drawn to favor the Democrat.

Edwards, who conceded the Democratic Senate nomination to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, will likely be replaced in her House district by a man, former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Del. Joseline Pena Melnyk lost to Brown in the 4th Congressional District, and former WJLA anchor and Marriott International executive Kathleen Matthews lost to state Sen. Jamie Raskin in the 8th Congressional District for the seat left open by Van Hollen.

The testy contest for the Democratic Senate nomination turned in its final weeks on race and gender.

Edwards, who would have been the second African-American woman to serve in the Senate, and the first from Maryland, argued she would bring a unique and historic voice to carry on Mikulski's legacy.

Van Hollen said the contest was about choosing a candidate who represented all voters, and he pointed to a lengthy list of women leaders in the state who endorsed him.

In the end, exit polls indicated Van Hollen led Edwards by 14 percentage points among women.

But that doesn't erase some difficult questions for state Democrats. If their nominees win where they are expected to, Maryland would be one of 14 states to send only men to Washington. And in a state where 30 percent of the population is black, only two of the state's 10 seats in Congress would be held by African-Americans.

It's a point Edwards, of Prince George's County, reinforced in a sometimes stinging concession speech Tuesday night.

"The state of Maryland is on the verge of having an all-male delegation," she said. "When will our voices be effective, legitimate, equal leaders in a big-tent party?"

Maryland has had at least one woman in its congressional delegation since Republican Marjorie S. Holt won election in 1972. The state has a history of electing and re-electing women such as Republicans Constance A. Morella and Helen Delich Bentley, and Democrat Beverly B. Byron.

Mikulski came to embody that tradition, and not just in Maryland, but as the dean of Senate women. The first Democratic woman elected to the chamber in her own right — that is, without following a husband or father into office — she has helped raise money for female candidates across the nation, and has campaigned for Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for president.

Though Mikulski arguably is part of the reason there are 20 women in the Senate today, she was "studiously neutral" in the race to succeed her.

Speaking at Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point on Wednesday morning, Mikulski said she was at ease with how the Senate race turned out.

"It's always been first and foremost [about] the agenda," Mikulski said. "Chris Van Hollen and I have exactly the same agenda.

"I'm comfortable not only handing over the reins but riding on the buckboard to help him to get elected."

Szeliga, who as minority whip in the House of Delegates is already the highest-ranking elected Republican female in the state, said the importance of choosing a woman for Mikulski's seat will figure prominently in her general election campaign.

Szeliga, a small-business owner who has spoken on the campaign trail of her experience as a mother and a grandmother, said she thought Edwards' comments were "spot on."

"We need all kinds of people at the table as lawmakers," she said. "We're definitely going to continue to talk about it because it's important."

Hoeber represents more hope for the GOP. Delaney won a second term in 2014 only narrowly; Republicans hope to make the Western Maryland district competitive again.

Gender politics has played a role on the national stage in a way that could complicate Szeliga's and Hoeber's campaigns. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has ramped up his rhetoric against Clinton, who is running to become the nation's first woman president.

"Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she would get 5 percent of the vote," Trump said in New York after sweeping Maryland and the four other states that held presidential primaries Tuesday. "The only thing she has got going is the woman's card."

Clinton, who won Maryland and three other states, fired back with a response voters are certain to hear again as the race turns to the general election.

"Well, if fighting for women's health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the ​'woman card,'" she said, "then deal me in."

Two-thirds of women had an unfavorable view of Trump in a USA Today-Suffolk University poll released earlier this month. Nearly half had a negative view of Clinton.

Sen. Ted Cruz, who is trying to stop Trump by forcing a contested convention this summer, named former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as his running mate Wednesday.

Trump's poor showing with female general election voters "is going to have a huge impact on not only the race for president with Hillary Clinton, but for all of our races," said Jessica O'Connell, executive director of Emily's List.

The Washington-based group, which works to elect Democratic women, spent heavily to support Edwards.

O'Connell said many are concerned about the potential lack of women representing Maryland. That's part of the reason the group engaged for Edwards in the first place, she said.

"It's a huge problem," she said. "It's definitely going to be a wake-up call for Maryland voters."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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