Rep. Donna F. Edwards , right has accused Rep. Chris Van Hollen of being open to cutting Social Security benefits . The Democrats are both running for Senate.
Rep. Donna F. Edwards , right has accused Rep. Chris Van Hollen of being open to cutting Social Security benefits . The Democrats are both running for Senate. (Baltimore Sun)

A powerful outside group and leading supporter of Rep. Donna F. Edwards' campaign for Senate said Thursday it is making a last-minute investment in the contest — just as a new poll indicated rival Rep. Chris Van Hollen was potentially gaining momentum.

Women Vote!, a super PAC tied to the Washington-based group Emily's List, will spend $500,000 on statewide television advertising in the final days of the Senate contest, a spokeswoman said, erasing the large advantage Van Hollen has enjoyed on TV recently.

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The advertising was announced on the same day that a Monmouth University poll said Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, had a 16-point lead in the race -- by far the largest margin any candidate has enjoyed. The poll was the third in recent days to show Van Hollen with a lead outside the margin of error.

"We're working very hard, trying to reach voters in every part of the state," Van Hollen said as he campaigned in Prince George's County on the last day of early voting. "I think as people focus more closely on the candidates and their record, we're picking up steam."

Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said Van Hollen's support was trending up over the three nights he was in the field.

While Van Hollen and his campaign have stressed their ground effort, a number of observers said his message has been more pervasive on television in recent days, even when outside groups supporting the two candidates are taken into account. That is the result of a dynamic that has been at play for months: He has raised more money.

And so that is why the latest investment by Emily's List is so significant. The group is airing the same feel-good introductory spot it ran late last year -- at a time when Edwards wasn't running advertising at all. The ad, which focuses on Edwards' background, will play in the Baltimore, Washington and Salisbury media markets.

Emily's List, which gained a national reputation for supporting Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski in her first Senate race in 1986, has had a significant influence on the contest to replace her. It has spent nearly $3 million for Edwards directly, and it funneled another $500,000 through a separate super PAC called Working for US. That group's leading donor, hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman, is also a major Emily's List contributor.

Working for US -- which is separate from the Edwards campaign -- ran an attack ad last week arguing Van Hollen caved to the National Rifle Association when he was advancing a campaign finance disclosure bill in 2010. The ad drew fire from a White House official and other Democrats, and although those comments were mostly limited to the super PAC itself, they have been perceived by many as criticism directed at Edwards.

Van Hollen has also benefited from outside groups, including the National Realtors Association, which has spent at least $1 million on the race, and a super PAC supported by the powerful Baltimore union 1199SEIU, which has spent about $300,000.

The other dynamic being watched closely is early voting, which ended Thursday. State Board of Elections data show large increases in the number of people turning out in the city, where a competitive mayoral race is underway, but it's impossible to say whether that jump is due to interest in the races, or just an increase in the number of people casting a ballot early.

The election is April 26.

Edwards, who also had a full day of events Thursday, would likely benefit from a large turnout in Baltimore because that generally means a higher share of African American voters. She has touted the historic significance of her candidacy — she would be the first black woman to represent the state ­in the Senate — and polls have indicated her support is particularly strong among African Americans.

The Prince George's County Democrat said she was glad to see people turning out in Baltimore, for the city's sake.

"To me it's a sign that there's been a very robust debate and discussion around the mayor's race, around the council seats -- and I think that really bodes well for Baltimore City," Edwards said at a campaign stop in Randallstown.

She dismissed the Monmouth poll.

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"This close to election day," she said, "this is about people getting turned out to vote."

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