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Race to succeed Barbara Mikulski remains a toss up

WASHINGTON — The race for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's seat in the U.S. Senate remains a toss up, making Maryland's contest among the most competitive Democratic primaries in the nation, a poll released Tuesday has found.

Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County and Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, the two leading candidates battling for the Democratic nomination, are within the margin of error, according to the Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies poll.

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Tuesday's survey was the third in as many months to find a razor-thin margin in the contest. Forty-two percent of respondents are supporting Van Hollen, 41 percent are backing Edwards and 15 percent are undecided.

Van Hollen, who represents the 8th Congressional District, is leading Edwards among men, white voters and in the politically important Baltimore suburbs. Edwards, who represents the 4th Congressional District, is winning with women, African Americans and Baltimore City voters. Both candidates have high support in their respective home territories of Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

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Continuing a trend that has been a driving force of politics in Annapolis, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan continues to enjoy high approval despite an effort by Democrats to draw distinctions with him during his second legislative session. Seven in 10 respondents said they approve of Hogan — with 45 percent "strongly approving" — and 18 percent said that they disapprove.

A majority of Democrats, 53 percent, give Hogan high marks, and a remarkable eight in 10 independents said they approve of the way the governor has handled the job. Hogan's approval in the latest poll is higher than it was in a Goucher College poll last month and a Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll in November.

The accuracy of statewide polls in Maryland often hinge on predictions of African American turnout — and that may be particularly true in the Senate contest, where Edwards has spent significant time touting the historic nature of her campaign. She would be the first African American to represent Maryland in the Senate.

Black voters made up 43 percent of the sample in the Gonzales poll, compared with 45 percent in the Goucher Poll last month and 39 percent in The Sun/UB poll. Though estimates vary — Maryland does not collect racial data on voter registration forms — black voters made up roughly 40 percent of the Democratic primary turnout in Maryland for President Barack Obama's historic presidential campaign in 2008.

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Van Hollen has previously run broadcast television ads in Baltimore, though he is not on the air now. Emily's List, the Washington-based group that supports Democratic women for office, is running a six-figure television buy for Edwards that is airing in both the Baltimore and Washington media markets.

Over the weekend Van Hollen won the endorsement of The Washington Post. Edwards, meanwhile, announced the backing of Wendy Davis, the Texas state lawmaker who captured national attention in 2013 for filibustering legislation that called for more restrictive regulations on abortions.

The "Washington Post endorsement presents a clear choice: Chris Van Hollen will be a real force for accomplishment in the Senate, while Donna Edwards is part of the problem in Washington," Van Hollen spokeswoman Bridgett Frey said in a statement. "We are confident that difference matters to Maryland voters."

"After a million dollars in Van Hollen ads, Donna emerges with the base of support required to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, with substantial leads among women, African Americans, and in Prince George's County and the critical population center in Baltimore City," Edwards spokesman Benjamin Gerdes said in a statement. "In Donna, Maryland families have a champion who will fight every day to ensure equal pay, end gun violence, and take on the Washington special interests holding middle class families back."

The Gonzales poll found that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a commanding lead in Maryland, with support from 57 percent of respondents compared with 26 percent for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Seventeen percent of Maryland voters remain undecided in the presidential race.

The poll, conducted from Feb. 29 through Friday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points on statewide issues. In the Democratic primary race for Senate specifically, the poll includes a sample of 411 respondents and a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Patrick Gonzales is a veteran pollster based in Anne Arundel County who conducted a statewide exit poll for Mikulski's first run for the Senate in 1986. He did not poll the Republican contests for Senate and president.

Other results in the poll include:

•64 percent of respondents support reducing the state's personal income tax by 10 percent over the next three years, with 29 percent opposing;

•67 percent support raising cigarette taxes from $2 per pack to $3 per pack, with 30 percent against that idea;

•Just over half of respondents support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, with four in 10 opposing. Support was stronger among Democrats (62 percent) and independents (65 percent) compared with Republicans (34 percent).

•Three-quarters of respondents support allowing adultery to be considered a legal grounds for divorce among same-sex married couples, a policy that has long been in place for heterosexual couples.

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