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Edwards, Van Hollen spar outside money in second TV debate

Baltimore,MD-3/25/16 -- Democratic Senate debate between Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen held at the University of Baltimoreâ¿¿s Learning Commons. Lloyd Fox/Staff #0677
Baltimore,MD-3/25/16 -- Democratic Senate debate between Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen held at the University of Baltimoreâ¿¿s Learning Commons. Lloyd Fox/Staff #0677 (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The two Democratic candidates running for Maryland's open Senate seat clashed over the outside political money that has been increasingly working its way into the high-profile race in a lively televised debate broadcast in Washington and Baltimore on Tuesday.

Reps. Donna F. Edwards and Chris Van Hollen battled over the issues that have come to define the race for the Democratic nomination, including her attack on his previous statements about Social Security as well as his criticism that her congressional office has delivered inadequate constituent services.

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The debate, broadcast live on WJLA in Washington and WBFF in Baltimore, offered the first opportunity for the two to discus the recent involvement of the National Association of Realtors in the race. A super PAC associated with the group has invested nearly $1 million in support of Van Hollen, including on television and with mailings.

"What do the Realtors expect from you?" Edwards asked Van Hollen directly.

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Van Hollen argued against outside spending in the race last July, calling on Edwards to sign a pledge that required campaigns to donate 50 percent of any money spent by an outside group on their behalf. The idea, which Edwards later rejected, was intended to pressure outside groups like Emily's List and the Realtors from spending any money at all.

Emily's List has committed to investing $2.4 million for Edwards -- much of that on television advertising in the Baltimore media market. Edwards used the debate to try to draw a distinction between that group, which supports Democratic women for office, and the real estate association, which directly lobbies Congress on policy issues.

Van Hollen countered by renewing his call for a pledge to freeze out any third party money.

"Why don't you join me in putting your name to what you say you stand for, which is to say 'no' to super PACs?" Van Hollen asked Edwards.

Neither campaign can ultimately control spending by third party groups.

Van Hollen, who represents the Montgomery County-based 8th Congressional District, raised significantly more of his own campaign cash last year. Edwards, who represents the neighboring Prince George's County-based 4th District, was expected to partly offset that disadvantage with help from Emily's List.

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But with several polls showing the contest in a statistical tie -- or with Edwards enjoying a small lead -- the fundraising narrative has the potential to change in the final weeks before the April 26 election.

Edwards and Van Hollen are the two leading Democrats running to succeed Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who is retiring next year. Fourteen Republican candidates have lined up for the GOP nomination in a wide-open contest that polls indicate has not yet captured voters' attention.

The two Democrats had one of their most substantive discussions about trade on Tuesday, with Edwards criticizing Van Hollen for supporting nine free trade agreements over his tenure. Edwards said those deals have shipped tens of thousands of Maryland jobs overseas and lowered working standards for others.

Van Hollen countered by noting his more robust support from the state's largest labor unions.

"These trade deals have been a bad deal for American workers, and Mr. Van Hollen has signed on to most of them," Edwards said.

"Those agreements have resulted in more Maryland jobs, and that's why you have to look at the details of each one," Van Hollen countered.

The two also rehashed a long standing debate over Social Security, with Edwards pointing to a Van Hollen's remark in which he said a series of recommendations made by a deficit reduction panel in 2010 could serve as a "framework" for a broader budget deal he was crafting as the top-Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

Van Hollen did not embrace the plan, nor did he support its individual recommendations, such as raising the retirement age and slowing cost-of-living adjustments for seniors. The so-called Simpson-Bowles report called for dozens of recommendations to lower federal budget deficits.

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