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Reps. Donna Edwards, Chris Van Hollen spar in first Senate debate

Reps. Donna Edwards (right) and Chris Van Hollen (left).
Reps. Donna Edwards (right) and Chris Van Hollen (left). (Baltimore Sun)

WASHINGTON — The two leading Democratic candidates for Maryland's open Senate seat, meeting for their first debate on Friday, clashed over their records and their vision for what kind of lawmaker would be best to replace Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski -- an outsider offering new perspective, or a veteran with experience getting legislation approved.

Reps. Donna F. Edwards and Chris Van Hollen, who have been locked in a competitive race for the open seat for the better part of a year, engaged in a feisty, hour-long exchange on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi show, questioning each other's campaign narratives and commitment to Democratic principles on trade, entitlements and criminal justice reform.

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Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, was the most aggressive he has been to date both in pushing back on Edwards's attacks and also lobbing several of his own. Notably, Van Hollen repeatedly criticized Edwards for what he said was poor constituent services in the Prince George's County-based 4th Congressional District she represents.

"Ms. Edwards, in this race, is not running on her record," Van Hollen said. "A lot of rhetoric, but no results. No record."

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For her part, Edwards opened a new line of attack against Van Hollen, arguing that he supported mandatory minimum legislation as a state lawmaker in Annapolis. That issue has carried particular salience this election year as many Democrats -- including former Hillary Clinton, the front runner for the presidential nomination -- have been pressed on prior tough-on-crime stances that are now out of sync with the thinking in both political parties.

More broadly, the debate reflected the arguments the two lawmakers have been sounding for months. Van Hollen repeatedly came back to what he described as his effectiveness, his ability to work with others to advance an agenda. Edwards has framed that experience as a negative, arguing Van Hollen is part of the establishment and said he has sacrificed liberal principles to make deals.

In one particularly poignant exchange, the candidates debated the significance of the many endorsements Van Hollen has secured -- including from progressive figures such as former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur. Edwards has received the backing from some elected officials and labor unions, but Van Hollen has locked up some of the best known.

"It is no surprise to me that the political establishment has endorsed the political establishment," Edwards said in reference to Van Hollen. "Endorsements don't win elections."

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Polling in the race has varied widely, with a series of surveys in recent months finding the contest a dead heat. More recently, a poll this month for the Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore found Edwards with a 10-point lead.

Van Hollen had raised significantly more money by the end of last year -- the latest data available -- and had a better than 10-to-1 cash advantage over Edwards. But two factors have potentially undermined that dynamic. The first is that Edwards has likely benefited on the fundraising front from polls showing a close race. The other is that an outside super PAC associated with Washington-based Emily's List has spent more than $1.4 million on advertising in the Baltimore media market on her behalf.

Edwards, 57, has frequently touted the historic significance of her candidacy, noting on Friday the lack of diversity in the Senate. Edwards would be the first African American to represent Maryland in the chamber, and only the second black woman elected to the Senate.

Asked if race matters, Edward said it does in terms of bringing a different perspective to the overwhelmingly white Senate -- a consideration in the contest, she said, but not a determining factor.

"I think in a state that is the home base of Harriet Tubman that it's really important for us to recognize that there's some significant gaps in the United States Senate," Edwards said. "I look forward to representing Marylanders no matter where it is that they live."

On that point Van Hollen agreed.

"I'm fighting for every vote," said Van Hollen, also 57. "When I talk to people across the state, regardless of race, regardless of gender, what they're looking for is someone who can deliver results."

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