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

The two Democrats running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland are from the Washington suburbs, but they are suddenly popping up all over Baltimore.

Reps. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County and Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County have appeared more frequently in the Democrat-rich Baltimore region in recent weeks than in any other part of the state — underscoring its battleground status in one of the nation's most closely watched primary contests.

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Both candidates are better known in their own communities on the other side of Route 32, and so Baltimore is wide-open political territory.

"It's important for Baltimore to enjoy success because that defines success for the entire state," Edwards, 57, said between campaign stops in the city recently. "I'm spending a lot of time in Baltimore because I'm not from Baltimore, and so I want to learn its neighborhoods and communities — its leaders."

Van Hollen echoed the sentiment during a recent visit: "My view has always been that the state of Maryland is only going to be strong and vibrant if the city of Baltimore is strong and vibrant."

While Baltimore's political influence in the state has diminished with the growth of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the region remains fertile ground for Democratic candidates. Together, Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties accounted for more than a third of the 2012 Democratic primary turnout, about 115,000 voters.

Edwards and Van Hollen are running to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Highlandtown native and former city councilwoman who has championed the state's largest city throughout her career. The state's other senator, Democrat Ben Cardin, grew up in Ashburton.

Edwards started her day recently at a veterans' event near City Hall, spoke with students at Morgan State University about the importance of federal funding for historically black colleges and universities, and then addressed a Democratic club in Columbia. She plans to formally open a campaign office in the city on Saturday.

She frequently notes the historic significance her election would have on the Senate, an institution that is still made up mostly of white men. That might find particular resonance in a city where a majority of voters are black.

"It matters whose voices are at the table," Edwards told the students.

Van Hollen, meanwhile, has led an economic tour in the region, meeting with business owners. Last week, he spoke with officials at the workforce development nonprofit Humanim at the American Brewery building. On Friday, he is to speak with employees at Zentech, a Baltimore County electronics firm. He also has campaign offices in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

"You've got to provide opportunity in the neighborhoods, and help bring businesses and startups to these neighborhoods," Van Hollen said last week in Broadway East.

But Van Hollen's most notable presence is arguably in living rooms across the region: The top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee has been on the air with television ads in Baltimore for weeks.

In the opening words of the first ad, a narrator notes that Van Hollen, 56, is "the son of a Baltimore native." The congressman's family has a long history in the city, lending its name to Hollen Road in Cedarcroft.

Neither candidate is directly addressing the increase in violent crime in the city, or articulating a message — beyond national Democratic talking points — of how to deal with systemic poverty in cities like Baltimore. Both have called for stricter federal gun laws, job training programs and economic investment in the city.

Edwards has stressed education spending as a central theme of her campaign, including providing Pell grants to people who are incarcerated and increasing science and engineering funding in schools.

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Van Hollen has pointed to a lengthy list of criminal justice bills he has signed on to, such as legislation to seal and expunge criminal records for young people, and a measure requiring police training to address racial bias.

While politicians from other parts of Maryland have won statewide elections in recent years, the Washington suburbs have yet to capture a Senate seat in modern times. The closest was GOP Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, who served from 1969 to 1987. His former House district included portions of Montgomery County, but Mathias was based in Frederick.

"The two announced candidates are both from the Washington region, and so Baltimore, by its nature, becomes very important," said Patrick E. Gonzales, president of the Arnold-based polling firm Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies.

Looming over their effort is Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who is leaning against running but who hasn't ruled out a campaign. A series of polls have shown Cummings with a commanding early lead over both Van Hollen and Edwards.

Most of the focus in the Senate race has remained on the Democratic side, though there are an increasing number of Republicans hoping to build on GOP Gov. Larry Hogan's win last year.

Del. Kathy Szeliga, the minority whip in the House of Delegates who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, entered the contest last week. Days later, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a former state lawmaker, said he was weighing a run.

Former gubernatorial aide Chrys Kefalas, a Parkville man, has been campaigning. Former Pentagon official Richard Douglas and Navy veteran Anthony Seda also are running for the GOP nomination.

On the Democratic side, Van Hollen has been able to maintain a near-constant advertising presence in the region because of a significant fundraising advantage. The former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had more than $4 million in the bank at the end of September, compared with only $369,000 for Edwards.

Yet many believe outside groups such as Emily's List — the Washington-based organization that helps Democratic women who support abortion rights — will help Edwards close the gap.

At least until the advertising war heats up, observers said, it makes sense for both candidates to spend a lot of time in and around Baltimore.

"It's a high concentration of Democrats," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.

"A great way to ensure that the next public poll that comes out has you on top is to make sure you're hitting Democrats in a really high-density population Democratic area."

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