Steve Raabe, President of OpinionWorks, says the Sun Poll shows Chris Van Hollen leading Donna Edwards among Democratic candidates currently vying for Barbara Mikulski's Senate seat. (Baltimore Sun)
After weeks of targeting Baltimore-area voters with television advertising, Rep. Chris Van Hollen has opened a significant, double-digit lead in Maryland's closely watched Democratic primary race to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, according to a new poll for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.
The seven-term lawmaker from Montgomery County is running ahead of Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County in virtually every corner of the state, and is performing remarkably well among women, black voters and other groups that the Edwards campaign has viewed as critical to its success.
Forty-five percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they would support Van Hollen, compared with 31 percent for Edwards. The 14-point spread will reorder the conventional wisdom that Edwards enjoyed a slight lead.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who is still deciding whether to jump into the race, would be a game-changer if he did: The Baltimore lawmaker would capture 40 percent of the state's Democratic voters, the poll found, enough to lead Van Hollen and Edwards in a three-way race.
Without Cummings, there is no Baltimore-area Democrat in the race, and the region has emerged as the main battlefield between the two candidates from the Washington suburbs. Both have been campaigning aggressively in the area in recent weeks.
Van Hollen, who has a big fundraising advantage over Edwards, began running feel-good broadcast and cable TV advertisements in early October and only recently came off the air.
Van Hollen is leading Edwards two-to-one in the Baltimore region. The gap widens when Baltimore's suburban counties are included.
"That's the absolute key to the race," said Steve Raabe, president of Annapolis-based OpinionWorks, which conducted the survey. "If it's between the two of them, whoever comes up here and wins Baltimore is going to win the race."
The Republicans running for the job have received less attention, largely because they face a steeper climb in the general election in deeply Democratic Maryland. House of Delegates Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, a Baltimore County Republican, leads the field with 15 percent of likely GOP voters.
The candidates are competing for the seat left open by Mikulski's retirement in 2017 — a primary race that has been considered among the most competitive in the country. Mikulski, 79, shocked the state's political apparatus in March by announcing she would step down after four decades in Congress.
Edwards, a fifth-term congresswoman, has tried to develop two major themes in the contest. First, she has pitched herself as more liberal than Van Hollen, questioning his votes on trade agreements, his statements on entitlement reform and his commitment to gun control.
That broader message is resonating with some.
"She's just more progressive," said 69-year-old Barbara Sarkozy of Baltimore County. She indicated she would likely vote for Edwards.
Edwards, 57, has pitched a second broad message: As an African-American woman, she has touted the historic significance her election would have on an institution composed almost entirely of white men.
The last black woman to serve in the Senate was Carol Moseley Braun, who represented Illinois from 1993 to 1999.
That argument has been seen by some as particularly poignant in Maryland because Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in Congress, has been celebrated for breaking glass ceilings. She was the first female chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and has worked to elect more women to high office.
But the poll suggests Edwards has so far struggled to connect that message of diversity to the voters who might be most receptive to it. Van Hollen is winning nearly three out of 10 black voters, and he is beating Edwards among women by seven percentage points.
"You need to stop looking at color," said Lee Kelly, a 79-year-old Ellicott City woman who is a black Van Hollen supporter. "Look at people."
The significance of the dynamic in Baltimore cannot be overstated. In the last competitive Democratic primary for Senate, in 2006, the black former congressman Kweisi Mfume won 67 percent of the vote in Baltimore, but still narrowly lost statewide to then-Rep. Ben Cardin, who is white.
By comparison, Van Hollen is leading Edwards by 16 points in Baltimore, the poll found.
Twenty-four percent of Democratic voters said they are undecided on the Senate race, or are backing someone else.
Van Hollen, 56, has cast himself as an "effective progressive," able to work with lawmakers of all political persuasions to advance a Democratic agenda.
The top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Van Hollen is close to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and has long been viewed as a potential future leader of his party's caucus in the House.
He has been able to run three television ads in Baltimore so far because he has a big advantage in fundraising — about $4 million in the bank, more than 10 times as much as Edwards.
Republicans are hoping that GOP Gov. Larry Hogan's surprise win last year has cleared a path for others — despite the Democrats' two-to-one advantage in voter registration. Several have declared or are considering a run for the party's nomination.
Szeliga, who announced her candidacy this month, has worked quickly to coalesce the support of the state's Republican powers.
Richard Douglas, a former Pentagon official who ran for the GOP Senate nomination in 2012, trails Szeliga with 9 percent of likely GOP primary voters surveyed. Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who is considering a campaign, is supported by 8 percent.
Nearly 6 in 10 Republican voters in Maryland have not yet chosen a candidate, the poll found.
Maryland's primary ballot will include candidates for president, but that won't necessarily mean a boost in turnout.
Given the wide lead enjoyed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, and Maryland's position late in the primary calendar, the presidential race may be a foregone conclusion by the time Free State voters head to the polls.
And then there is Cummings, the popular 11-term Democrat, who has been flirting with a Senate run for most of the year. Poll after poll has shown him as a frontrunner, a candidate who can capture support across racial and geographic lines.
Cummings raised his stock considerably this year with a calm, commanding response to the riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray in April. And he won acclaim from Democrats nationally for his performance defending Hillary Clinton during an 11-hour hearing focused on the 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
But Cummings, 64, has given little indication he wants the job. He hasn't increased his fundraising, for instance, and he does not appear to have asked elected officials in the state to hold off on endorsing Van Hollen or Edwards.
"He's speaking out on what he feels is wrong," Walter Dustmann, a 69-year-old Catonsville man, said of Cummings.
Dustmann said he is turned off by candidates of both parties who are catering to the extremes. If Cummings does not run, Dustmann said, he'll switch to Van Hollen.
"Just the way they're acting today in Congress," he lamented. "It's scary."
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Results are based on a survey of 419 likely Democratic primary voters and 307 likely Republican primary voters done by OpinionWorks of Annapolis for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs and Schaefer Center for Public Policy. The survey was conducted by telephone, both land-based and cellular, by trained interviewers from Nov. 13 to Nov. 17. Voters were randomly selected for interviews from a voter file provided by the State Board of Elections.