Women voters in Maryland are being targeted with television ads about the two candidates running in the state's Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, underscoring the battle underway for a demographic that will play a key role in choosing a successor to Barbara A. Mikulski, the pathbreaking dean of the Senate women.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County began airing a new commercial this week promoting his record on women's issues. The spot comes as a powerful national women's group with a history in Maryland politics is running $1 million in advertising for his primary opponent, Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County.
In races across the state, candidates are working aggressively to reach women, who typically account for about 60 percent of the turnout in Maryland Democratic primaries — and who observers believe will be energized by Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign to vote in larger numbers this year.
"There are many women who are looking at her candidacy as historic," said Steve Raabe, president of the Annapolis-based polling firm OpinionWorks. "That certainly isn't going to hurt the turnout among women."
In the 8th Congressional District, which includes parts of Montgomery, Frederick and Carroll counties, former television news anchor Kathleen Matthews focused her first position paper on what she described as women's issues, including paid family leave and equal pay.
State Sen. Jamie Raskin, also running for the Democratic nomination in the 8th District, announced a group of female supporters early in his campaign that will help organize other women to back the campaign.
Several women's political organizations, meanwhile, have endorsed state Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk in her bid in the 4th Congressional District, which includes Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. Another candidate in the 4th, former Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey, launched a group of women supporters in December.
Yet the wooing of female voters is most pronounced in the Senate race, where Edwards often discusses her background as a single mother and her argument that a woman should hold the seat long occupied by Mikulski, the first female elected to the Senate without following a husband or father into the office, and the first to chair the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Van Hollen's ad, running on broadcast and cable television in the Baltimore region, notes the lawmaker's high score from groups such as Planned Parenthood (though virtually all Democrats, including Edwards, have received high marks from the group) and his efforts as the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee to block GOP budget cuts that would have affected women's health programs.
The Van Hollen campaign declined to say how much it spent on the ad. A review of Federal Communications Commission filings showed that the campaign spent about $45,000 with broadcast television stations in Baltimore this week, though that number might not fully reflect the scope of the advertising.
"A lot of people can talk but they can't deliver," state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Van Hollen supporter, says in the ad. "Chris can."
The ad does not mention Edwards by name, but the line is clearly directed at her. It follows months of messaging from the Van Hollen campaign that he is an effective legislator, implying that she is not.
A spokesman for Edwards declined to comment on the ad.
The spot is airing as Emily's List, the Washington-based group that helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, is running a six-week, $1 million ad campaign for Edwards that began in early December.
The most recent ad in the series says Edwards "won't back down [from] protecting women's health." The female narrator says that Edwards has "lived our challenges."
Emily's List rose to national prominence in part by supporting Mikulski's successful 1986 campaign for Senate.
"Donna Edwards is the only candidate with the experience that shows she knows firsthand about the challenges women face," said Emily's List spokeswoman Marcy Stech. "Donna has spent her entire career standing up for women. And that's a perspective that's desperately needed in the ... Senate."
A Baltimore Sun-University of Baltimore poll in November found Van Hollen leading Edwards by 7 percentage points among women. He has received endorsements from prominent Maryland women, including Kelley, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh of Baltimore and former NARAL Pro-Choice America board Chairwoman Rosalyn Levy Jonas.
The state's most prominent elected woman — Mikulski — has declined to back a candidate in the April 26 primary.
Edwards has pointed to support from several prominent national women's groups, including the National Organization for Women and Women's Action for New Direction in addition to Emily's List.
Her campaign plans to announce the endorsement of the National Women's Political Caucus and its Maryland chapter in the coming days.
The Edwards campaign itself has not run television ads. Its low fundraising — Edwards had $369,000 in the bank at the end of September — has limited its spending.
Several Republicans are also seeking the Senate seat, including Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, the minority whip in the House of Delegates; Richard Douglas, a former Pentagon official who ran for the GOP Senate nomination in 2012; and Chrys Kefalas, who is on leave from the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington to pursue his campaign.
Szeliga, the only female Republican in the race, has not yet crafted a message aimed specifically toward women.