Rep. Donna F. Edwards is facing criticism from Maryland's Jewish community for votes she has taken on Israel during her tenure in the House — positions that some believe will limit her support from an important constituency in her bid for the Senate.
Edwards, a Prince George's County Democrat who is running for the seat to be left open by the retirement of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski in 2017, has repeatedly opposed broadly bipartisan resolutions supporting Israel, or voted "present" — a way of acknowledging the vote without declaring a position.
The measures were mostly nonbinding, but have symbolic significance for many Jews.
In a Democratic primary election — in which the differences between candidates' positions are often hard to distinguish — Edwards' record on Israel represents a tangible divergence from Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County. Van Hollen, the only other announced candidate in the race, supported most of the resolutions at issue.
"If you take their records side by side, she's in the bottom 5 percent of the class and he's up there, among the top," said Morris J. Amitay, the former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group.
"I've never seen such a disparity," he said.
Edwards, responding to questions from The Baltimore Sun about her record on Israel, reiterated her support for a two-state solution to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis — the position of the Obama administration, and its predecessors.
She also said she has voted to support millions in security funding for Israel, including legislation passed in August to provide $225 million for a missile defense system.
"I've traveled throughout Israel and seen her promise and the threats to her existence," Edwards said in a statement. She said she would work to ensure that Israel is "secure Jewish democratic state."
Amitay and other politically active observers in the Jewish community say a half-dozen votes Edwards has cast since her 2008 election to the House have given pause to many.
Edwards was one of 22 Democrats who voted "present" on a resolution in 2009 recognizing Israel's "right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza."
The measure, which was introduced by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican leader John Boehner, had support from 222 Democrats. It passed 390 to 5.
In 2013, Edwards was one of 17 Democrats who voted against legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. The bill passed 400-20 but was sidelined in the Senate.
Van Hollen supported both measures. A spokeswoman for his campaign declined to comment.
"Her votes have not made the pro-Israel community especially happy, whether it's been some votes concerning sanctions on Iran or, particularly, problems Israel has had with Hamas and Hezbollah," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
"There have been concerns about her support for the Jewish state," he said.
Whether the rift with can be repaired — and whether, if it can't, it will have a significant impact on the state's high-profile Senate race — remain to be seen. Some say the distinction between the two candidates is significant enough that it will draw out-of-state money from pro-Israeli groups into the Maryland contest.
It's also the case that precincts in Baltimore and Montgomery counties with a large share of Jewish voters tend to have among the highest turnout in the state. In Democratic primaries for state and local elections in places such as Montgomery County, the share of the electorate that is Jewish can rise as high as 25 percent, said Keith Haller, a pollster based in the state.
In a statewide general election, Haller said, the share of the electorate that is Jewish is closer to 5 percent.
The Jewish community is not monolithic. Edwards' critics acknowledge that Israel is not the only issue in the Senate race. Edwards has pressed a progressive message during the early days of the campaign — and that will appeal to many Democrats regardless of their background.
Edwards has also long enjoyed support from J Street, the left-leaning group that supports Israel but has criticized some of its government's policies, particularly those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"The definition of pro-Israel is not whether or not a member of Congress signs their name to one-sided resolutions …that lack nuance, but whether or not the member of Congress is there for Israel on critical issues — votes that actually affect its security," J Street founder and President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in an interview.
"She has been a strong friend of Israel and a strong defender of its security," he said.
Edwards and Van Hollen jumped into the race last month soon after Mikulski announced her retirement. Several others are considering a run. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat with strong ties to the local Jewish community, has said he might run. Cummings has not set a timeline for making a decision.
No Republicans have announced their candidacy for the seat.
On the campaign trail, Edwards is touting the historic nature of her candidacy. If elected, she would be the first African-American from Maryland to serve in the Senate. Such a milestone would be particularly significant, her supporters say, given that Mikulski was the first Democratic woman elected to the chamber in her own right.
"African-American and Jewish communities share common cause as well as a history of overcoming pain and persecution," Edwards said in her statement.
Still, Edwards has her work cut out for her with Jewish voters. A headline in the Baltimore Jewish Times recently described Edwards and Van Hollen as "vastly different candidates."
"Her rhetoric is sometimes better than her voting record," said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac.
"How she has chosen to respond to the conflict with her voting record has not shown sympathy or understanding for the conditions Israel faces."