The two Democrats running for U.S. Senate in Maryland came out swinging in their first formal exchange Sunday, debating each other's commitment to Social Security, effectiveness in office and electability in next year's general election.
In a feisty candidate forum organized by the Maryland Chapter of the National Organization for Women — the first such meeting in the nascent race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski — Reps. Donna F. Edwards and Chris Van Hollen sought to amplify distinctions in their records on trade, entitlements and women's issues.
Edwards, of Prince George's County, directly attacked Van Hollen for past comments on Social Security, suggesting that he has been open to cuts to the landmark program that benefits 60 million seniors and disabled people.
"Here is where there is and has been, frankly, a fundamental difference between myself and Chris Van Hollen," Edwards said to several hundred people gathered for the forum in Rockville.
"When it came time to cut a deal that was part of a budget deal, Mr. Van Hollen was willing to consider — those were his own words — cuts to Social Security and Medicare," she said.
Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, defended his position. He said he had fought President Barack Obama on such cuts during discussions over a "grand bargain" to reduce budget deficits.
Without criticizing Edwards directly, Van Hollen — the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and a former chairman of the House Democrats' campaign organization — repeatedly touted his ability to "get things done," and hinted at the idea that he would be more electable in a general election than Edwards.
"We cannot take this general election to the United States Senate for granted," Van Hollen said. "We just saw what happened in the race for governor," when Republican Larry Hogan upset then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.
Van Hollen, a former state delegate and senator, noted that he unseated Republican incumbent Connie Morella in a newly drawn House district in 2002.
"I'm proud to have a record in the state legislature, not just of voting the way other Democrats vote but working to get things done," he said.
Edwards has tried to position herself to the left of Van Hollen, touting her liberal positions and noting the historic significance of her candidacy. If elected, she would be only the second African-American woman to serve in the Senate — and the first from Maryland.
"It's really important that when we're talking about equal pay for equal work that we know that there's a woman sitting at the table who's experienced unequal pay," Edwards said. "It's important to have somebody around the table, like me, who understands what that discussion is all about."
Van Hollen has been pressing the idea that the ability to get legislation through Congress is more important than ideological purity.
Edwards' Social Security attack is not new. She raised the issue right out of the gate in the video she used to announce her candidacy in March. Sunday was the first time she had discussed it so directly, with Van Hollen sitting feet away.
Edwards and progressive Democratic groups have focused on comments made by Van Hollen in 2012 suggesting that the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction recommendations — which included changes to Social Security — could provide a "framework" for a grand bargain on spending and taxes.
He never endorsed the proposal directly, and he opposed the idea of reducing benefit increases when Obama offered it to Republicans as part of a deal.
Obama and Republicans never reached an agreement.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has supported Van Hollen throughout his House career, but has not endorsed a candidate in Maryland's Democratic primary. She has said there is no significant difference between Edwards and Van Hollen on Social Security.
"Almost every member of the delegation is looking at the race and I think all of them subscribe to strengthening Medicare as they did in the Affordable Care Act and preserving Social Security — prolonging the life of both of them," Pelosi, a Baltimore native and the former House speaker, said in March.
Van Hollen's warnings notwithstanding, it's not clear Republicans will be able to mount the kind of threat to Democrats in the general election next year that they posed in the gubernatorial election in the fall.
Turnout was particularly low in Democratic areas for the gubernatorial election. Neither side expects Democrats to stay home during next year's presidential election.
In one possible reflection of that changed landscape, no Republican has announced a campaign for Mikulski's seat. Independent political analysts are rating the contest as safe for Democrats.
Other Democrats are considering a run for the seat, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings — the Baltimore lawmaker who has been a frequent presence on the city's streets after the riots that erupted on Monday — and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor.
On trade, both Edwards and Van Hollen oppose fast-tracking congressional approval of an agreement the Obama administration is negotiating with 11 Pacific Rim nations. But Edwards swiped at Van Hollen for supporting previous deals, such as with Colombia and South Korea. Liberal Democrats and unions argue the trade deals ship U.S. jobs overseas to countries with less stringent environmental and labor standards.
Van Hollen said he considers each trade agreement on their own merits.
"There are times, in my view, when the United States can benefit from trade agreements," he said. "There are times when the specifics of the agreements … lead you to the opposite conclusion."