Van Hollen wins testy race for Mikulski's seat

Edwards, Van Hollen battled in one of nation's highest-profile primaries.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a seven-term congressman who has risen rapidly through the ranks of the Democratic leadership in Washington, won the party's nomination for Maryland's open Senate seat Tuesday.

The son of a Baltimore family, Van Hollen ran as a pragmatic deal maker in a time of polarized politics. Though he was supported by many establishment figures — and raised significantly more money than any other candidate — he faced tough opposition from Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who represents a neighboring congressional district in the Washington suburbs.

"I want to say to all Marylanders, whether you are from Baltimore or the Washington suburbs or Western Maryland, Southern Maryland or the Eastern Shore, I will fight hard for you every day in the United States Senate," Van Hollen told a raucous group of supporters in Bethesda.

With nearly all precincts reporting, Van Hollen had 53 percent of the vote, to Edwards' 39.

Van Hollen, 57, will face Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County in the general election this fall to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Szeliga, the top elected Republican woman in the state, easily beat back competition from 13 other candidates in a race in which many voters did not make up their mind until just before the electon.

Throughout a yearlong election, Van Hollen of Montgomery County and Edwards of Prince George's County both claimed to embody the best of Mikulski, a popular figure who announced last spring she would retire after 30 years.

Edwards, who would have been the first African-American to represent Maryland in the chamber, pointed to Mikulski's trailblazing tenure as the longest-serving woman in Congress. Van Hollen often noted Mikulski's ability to strike a deal — and her talent for balancing macro-level challenges facing the state as well as more intricate policy problems, from NASA funding to guest worker visas for Eastern Shore crab pickers.

Edwards reiterated some of those themes in a concession speech to supporters in Lanham.

"To my Democratic Party, let me say today Maryland is on the verge of having an all-male delegation in a so-called progressive state," Edwards said. "When will the voices of people of color; when will the voices of women; when will the voice of labor; when will the voices of black women; when will our voices be effective, legitimate, equal leaders in a big-tent party?"

Van Hollen walks into the general election race with major advantages over Szeliga. The Republican primary featured 14 candidates, including Baltimore attorney Chrys Kefalas, Richard Douglas, a former Pentagon official and Chris Chaffee.

Democrats have twice as many registered voters in the state; Maryland last elected a Republican senator — Charles McC. Mathias — in 1980.

But Republicans have said Gov. Larry Hogan's upset win in 2014 demonstrates that their party has a path to statewide victory again.

"It's a tough race," Szeliga said in an interview late Tuesday, but "everybody knows that, and we have evidence, though, that Maryland will elect a Republican."

Szeliga, 54, is the minority whip in the House of Delegates. The Baltimore native worked briefly as a teacher and created a construction company with her husband in Perry Hall. She got her start in politics when a family friend, former state lawmaker James M. Kelly, decided to run for office. She worked for six years as chief of staff for Rep. Andy Harris when he was a state senator.

Mikulski's decision last spring to retire took many in Washington by surprise. Those close to the top Democrat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee expected her to run for at least one more term.

In a state with a small but powerful congressional delegation, the rare open Senate seat was eyed by more than a dozen Democrats. Van Hollen and then Edwards announced campaigns, and other credible contenders slowly slipped by the wayside.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who is popular statewide, flirted with running for months, but backed out just before the filing deadline in February.

And so the two lawmakers from the increasingly powerful Washington suburbs began to introduce themselves to the Baltimore region, hoping to draw distinctions between their largely similar voting records.

Edwards sought to define herself as the more progressive candidate, and she worked to pin Van Hollen to sometimes ambiguous remarks he made about potential benefit reductions to Social Security.

Van Hollen, who led his caucus through the difficult budget fights of President Barack Obama's first term, had suggested occasionally that he might be open to a conversation about raising the retirement age in an effort to extend the program's life. In other comments, he rejected the idea flatly.

Edwards framed even the sniff of a willingness to consider changes to the program as anathema.

None of the disagreements captured as much attention as Edwards' contention that Van Hollen had "cut a deal" with the National Rifle Association in a 2010 campaign finance bill he had authored.

To bring more Democrats around to support the measure, House leaders exempted the NRA and other groups from the bill's disclosure requirements.

The effort faced resistance at the time from liberals, including Edwards, but was supported by Obama, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Cummings, and passed the House, 219-206.

The vast majority of Democrats, 217, supported it. But 36, including Edwards, voted "no."

The measure died in the Senate, but it took on new life in the Maryland contest.

Van Hollen supporters said their candidate had a long record of backing gun control and had shepherded a trigger lock bill through the General Assembly years earlier.

A super PAC supported by a Maine hedge fund manager and frequent Democratic donor began running an attack ad against Van Hollen that featured an image of Obama speaking about the 2012 massacre at an elementary school in Connecticut. White House political director David Simas took the exceedingly rare step of calling for that ad to come down.

Simas' ire was ostensibly limited to the super PAC and the use of the president's image, but Van Hollen supporters read the reaction as a subtle endorsement of his position in the underlying debate. And the pushback from the White House and other Democratic leaders might well have been a turning point in the race.

Within 24 hours, Van Hollen had an advertisement on TV that pinned the negative message directly on Edwards, overlooking the fact that the Edwards campaign has no control over the PAC.

The fact that Edwards went first with a negative ad on the gun issue troubled some voters who turned out on Tuesday.

"It got ugly," Rebecca Quinn said. The 65-year-old Arbutus woman said the negative advertising steered her to vote for Van Hollen. "I'm all about being for yourself, not for tearing someone else down."

Van Hollen launched his own criticisms, though they tended to be more guarded. Relying on quotes from newspaper editorial boards, Van Hollen framed Edwards as a member of the "tea party of the left," an ideological purist who would be unable to get much done in a polarized Senate.

He also questioned Edwards' constituent services, pounding on an alleged weakness that had been whispered for years, but which was difficult to prove.

Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to a U.S. foreign service officer and a State Department intelligence analyst. His Baltimore-born father served as ambassador to Sri Lanka in the 1970s under Republican Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. He lives in Kensington.

Jon Banister, Rachel Greenwald and Victoria Milko contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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