A powerful national group with deep ties to Maryland politics said Monday it will spend $1 million on advertising for Rep. Donna Edwards' campaign for Senate — hoping to rebalance a race that increasingly appears to favor her opponent, Rep. Chris Van Hollen.
Emily's List, the Washington-based group that helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, will begin a Baltimore-focused ad campaign Tuesday, a week after a poll for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore showed Rep. Chris Van Hollen with a double-digit lead in the primary race.
The group rose to prominence nearly 30 years ago by backing another woman from Maryland, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who went on to win the 1986 election and become the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate who did not follow a father or husband into high office.
Mikulski announced her retirement in March, setting up the competitive and often bitter April 26 primary race between Edwards and Van Hollen, one-time allies. Mikulski, the 79-year-old dean of the state's congressional delegation, has not endorsed a candidate to succeed her.
The Emily's List advertising is significant partly because of the group's history in Maryland, but also because of the current state of the contest. Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, has benefited from a 10-to-1 advantage in campaign cash, and also has the support of many of the state's most prominent Democratic leaders.
"If they're going to make a difference for her, this is how they're going to have to do it," said Mike Morrill, a Democratic strategist based in Maryland. "This is the time they can make a difference."
Van Hollen recently aired three advertisements on broadcast and cable television in the Baltimore media market that may have helped secure support in the region. The Sun poll, conducted shortly after those ads concluded, found 45 percent of likely Democratic primary voters would support Van Hollen, compared with 31 percent for Edwards.
The survey found Van Hollen leading Edwards by a 2-to-1 margin in the Baltimore region.
Emily's List will spend $875,000 on cable and broadcast ads, plus another $146,000 on radio and digital spots. The ads will run over six weeks and will target African-American women, the group said.
"Donna Edwards knows what it's like to struggle," a narrator says in the 30-second spot as the camera flashes through pictures of Edwards and her son. "But Donna overcame. She persevered. Then she put that backbone to work for us."
"Powerful interests don't want Democrat Donna Edwards," the narrator says. "That's a powerful reason why we do."
The campaign is being paid for by WOMEN VOTE!, the Emily's List super PAC, which can accept donations of unlimited amounts as long as it does not coordinate with the campaign. The group spent more than $12 million during the 2014 election cycle.
In response, Van Hollen's campaign zeroed in on a portion of the ad that contends Edwards has rejected Wall Street money. Van Hollen campaign manager Sheila O'Connell said that assertion was "misinformation."
"The truth is that Edwards has taken tens of thousands of dollars from Wall Street — including in this Senate campaign," O'Connell said in a statement. "Marylanders deserve better than deceptive advertising from outside super PACs. That is not the kind of leadership we need in the U.S. Senate."
Van Hollen's campaign noted several dozen individual donors to Edwards over the course of her career with ties to Wall Street, including George Soros, as well as executives at Merrill Lynch and AllianceBernstein in New York.
An Edwards spokesman pointed to the campaign's commitment not to take money from Wall Street-based political action committees. Both candidates have taken money from individuals with ties to the banking industry.
"Donna's the only candidate in this race who's refused money from the big Wall Street banks, and Marylanders know Donna is the only candidate who will always have the courage to take on the Washington special interests," campaign spokesman Benjamin Gerdes said in a statement.
Though Emily's List is prohibited from coordinating with the Edwards campaign, the message in the ads is consistent with a major theme the congresswoman has been pitching on the campaign trail.
Edwards, 57, of Prince George's County has stressed her progressive record, her humble beginnings and also the historic significance of her potential election. She would be the first African-American to represent Maryland in the Senate and the second black woman to serve in the chamber nationwide.
Van Hollen, 56, has also promoted his progressive bona fides, picked up endorsements from many of the state's best-known Democrats, and has noted that more of his financial support has come from within the state itself.
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The significant investment by Emily's List signals several important potential developments, not the least of which is that the group intends to be a player in the state where it made its first big endorsement.
It's considered unlikely that the group would have poured so much cash into Baltimore if its leaders thought there was a chance Rep. Elijah E. Cummings would get into the race. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who is ostensibly still considering a run, is wildly popular in the city, and it is not clear an introductory ad would help Edwards much in a three-way race.
The ad campaign also shows the group is not worried about criticism from Van Hollen about outside, third-party spending. Earlier this year, Van Hollen pressed Edwards to commit to rejecting any outside advertising in the contest, an offer the Edwards campaign refused.
"It's almost a necessary strategic move on behalf of Edwards by Emily's List," said Morrill, the Democratic strategist. "They have to respond if they are going to make a difference."