Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen defeats Republican state Del. Kathy Szeliga in the race for Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s seat. (Baltimore Sun video)
Rep. Chris Van Hollen won Maryland's open Senate seat Tuesday, capping a nearly two-year campaign in which the seven-term Democratic lawmaker argued that his ability to navigate a polarized Congress would enable him to carry on the legacy of his popular predecessor.
The 57-year-old Montgomery County lawmaker, the son of a Baltimore family, will succeed Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the 30-year incumbent who stunned Maryland's political establishment last year when she announced she would not seek a sixth term.
Aided by the unpopularity of Republican Donald Trump in Maryland and Democrats' 2-1 registration advantage in the state, Van Hollen cruised to victory over Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga without relying on much advertising or many rallies.
In a victory speech, Van Hollen laid out priorities, including improving education, building the economy and getting big money out of politics.
Marylanders need to unite "behind the common purpose of trying to make sure every Marylander is treated with dignity and treated with respect and has an opportunity to have a fair shake in America," he told supporters at an election night party in Silver Spring. "That's what brings this extended family together as we move forward."
Van Hollen, who served 12 years in the General Assembly before he was elected to the House of Representatives in 2002, will enter the Senate at a particularly precarious moment in U.S. politics, following a divisive presidential election that exposed deep rifts within both major political parties.
Democrats had hoped to take back the Senate majority that they lost to Republicans in 2014, but the outcome of several close races remained uncertain late Tuesday.
Van Hollen's campaign focused on broad Democratic themes, including "accelerating economic growth," expanding early-childhood education and minimizing student debt.
Partly because the race was never considered competitive, he was rarely pinned down on how he would accomplish those goals, or pay for them.
But he also ran on a record that includes passing the nation's first mandatory trigger lock law in Annapolis and overhauling the college loan industry in Washington. He is liked by Democratic leaders, and has received praise from Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan for being an honest broker.
Such bipartisan affirmation is increasingly rare in Washington.
"Chris Van Hollen is just a solid, well-known legislator," said Ken McMahill, a 77-year-old Silver Spring man. "He's got a lot of influence even this early in his career. I'd rather have somebody who could wield some influence."
Van Hollen was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to a father who became an ambassador to Sri Lanka in the 1970s and a mother who was an intelligence analyst for the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. He worked for Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias and Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
In Congress, he has been a leading spokesman for his party on fiscal issues, serving as the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and a handful of panels that tried — mostly without success — to find bipartisan agreement on spending and taxes.
While the general election was not much of a contest, the Democratic primary in April captured national headlines — and drew White House involvement on Van Hollen's behalf.
Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County tried to use Van Hollen's record against him, painting him as an insider who was out of touch with constituents.
Days before the primary election, the Obama administration took the unusual step of publicly criticizing a television ad paid for a super PAC that supported Edwards.
Van Hollen won the nomination by more than 14 points.
After she lost, Edwards, an African-American woman, questioned Democrats' commitment to minority and women voters — raising uncomfortable questions for a party that has drawn much of its support from those constituencies.
Edwards ultimately endorsed Van Hollen but never stood on a stage with him.
If Rep. John Delaney of Potomac also wins in Maryland's 6th Congressional District, the state will send an all-male delegation to Washington for the first time in 46 years.
Szeliga emerged from a 14-way primary in April and picked up on many of the same themes Edwards presented. The Baltimore County woman described Van Hollen as an insider who raised millions of dollars from special interests. And she lamented the possibility of an all-male Maryland delegation.
Democrats say Szeliga ran a solid campaign, stronger than most recent GOP Senate nominees.
Curtis Wink said Szeliga's outsider message was appealing. The 80-year-old Urbana man said he is most concerned about Congress protecting the constitutional right to bear arms, and also doing something to stop illegal immigration.
"We've seen a lot of presidents and politicians come and go," Wink said. "I've come up with the idea that if you want to change things, don't vote for the people who are in there."
But Szeliga faced head winds from the top of the ticket in the form of Trump, who failed to gain traction in Maryland.
When Republican Gov. Larry Hogan came out against the New York businessman, it put down-ballot candidates in an awkward spot: Oppose the state's popular governor, or write off a large portion of the Republican base.
Szeliga — and the other Republican candidates running for federal office in Maryland this year — chose to support Trump. And at every turn, Van Hollen made sure voters knew about it.
Szeliga, the minority whip in the House of Delegates, will keep her seat in the General Assembly.
"I'm going to continue to fight for you, continue to carry the banner for us and our ideas," Szeliga told supporters in Linthicum Heights late Tuesday. "This was never about me. This was about Maryland and carrying forward our values."
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Van Hollen, who lives in Kensington, will be the first Maryland senator to hail from the Washington suburbs since 1913 — the latest indication of a decades-long demographic shift that has moved the state's political center away from Baltimore and toward Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Van Hollen, a graduate of Swarthmore College with degrees in public policy from Harvard University and law from Georgetown University, is married and has three children.
The race also featured Green Party candidate Margaret Flowers, a physician who sought to offer voters a choice beyond the major parties, but who struggled to gain resources and attention.
Ellie Silverman and John Meils contributed to this article.