What the Maryland Democratic Senate Race Was Really About

A progressive Democrat lost to an establishment darling, but it had nothing to do with ideology.

Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards.
Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Images by Mark Wilson/Getty Images and Paul Morigi/Getty Images.

It’s tempting to read the Maryland Senate primary as a small-scale simulacrum for the race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. You have a full-throated progressive in the form of Rep. Donna Edwards facing her establishment colleague, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the very definition of an insider with a place in the Democratic Party leadership. And the results of the primary reflect that reading. Van Hollen took 53 percent of the vote to Edwards’ 38 percent, a weaker margin than Clinton’s 63 percent (to Sanders’ 33 percent), but still a significant victory.

But the comparisons between the two races end there. Where Clinton has always been near the center of Democratic politics, skating to the puck but never quite anticipating its destination, Van Hollen has been a reliable liberal vote in the House of Representatives, pushing progressive ideas as a deputy to leader Nancy Pelosi and a spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus. Edwards is a more vocal progressive—groups like Democracy for America have called her an “Elizabeth Warren Democrat”—but the substantive gap between her and Van Hollen is small. And the symbolic angle is reversed.

In the presidential race, it’s the relative moderate—Clinton—who would make history as the first woman to win a major party nomination. In the Maryland Senate primary, it would have been the insurgent, Edwards, who would make history as only the second black woman to serve in the United States Senate. To scramble things further, Edwards gave support (though not an endorsement) to Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination, despite her clear ideological affinity for Sanders. Which may explain why Sanders didn’t take this race as an opportunity to flex his influence and try to deliver a win for the progressive wing of the party.

You can read the Democratic presidential primary as an ideological struggle, but that’s the wrong frame for the Maryland Senate contest. This fight between two able public servants was more about ordinary representation—in all of its forms—than a vision for the state or the country.

For Edwards, that meant touting her identity and making it a part of her campaign. “I think it’s appropriate to talk about our elective bodies, our boardrooms, our workplaces, being places where every one of us, no matter who we are or where we grew up, can find a place,” she told MSNBC in an interview. “If we could have gotten this right over the course of 240 years, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Clearly this strategy of just letting it go and letting elections take their course has not been one that’s resulted in women gaining seats in the House or the Senate.”

It’s a serious perspective. Symbolic representation matters, and that’s especially true for incredibly underrepresented groups such as black women. And the only way to build a presence of those groups is to work for it. It’s why Edwards won early support from EMILY’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women, as well as the National Organization for Women.

Van Hollen ran on representation as well, but in the more quotidian sense. He touted his 25 years in Washington and deep ties to the party establishment, as well as his ability to bring benefits and services to a state that is unusually dependent on the federal government for economic progress. And he criticized Edwards for her inattention to the same sort of constituent service. One of his strongest endorsements, from Maryland Democrat Heather Mizeur (who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014), made this point. “Job No. 1 in politics isn’t about passing the most bills, appearing on the local TV stations, carving out and advancing an ideology, or even voting the right way (though all of these things matter),” she wrote for the Baltimore Sun. “No, the most important job is first taking care of the people. … By showing a sincere regard for the people he serves, Chris Van Hollen is the only one in this race ready to step into them.”

Again, this makes sense. There are tangible benefits to having a long-serving lawmaker in office as senator, especially one in party leadership. This is especially true given the shape of Maryland’s politics at the moment, where the Republican governor has taken an antagonistic approach to Baltimore city and other urbanized, Democratic parts of the state. Sen. Van Hollen might be a much-needed counterweight to a somewhat hostile Annapolis.

Other issues played a part in this race. A super PAC working on behalf of Team Edwards made a major misstep, for example, when it tried to tie Van Hollen to the National Rifle Association in an ad, provoking a response from the White House and House Democratic leadership and giving Van Hollen an opening, which he used, running ads that conflated Edwards with the super PAC and implying a testy relationship with President Obama. On the same score, Van Hollen touted his own relationship with the president.

But the crux of the election was this debate over representation: Which kind mattered most to the state’s Democratic voters? The answer, it seems, fell along racial lines. Van Hollen won 72 percent of whites versus 19 percent for Edwards, while Edwards won 57 percent of blacks versus 37 percent for Van Hollen. Blacks were a greater share of the electorate, but his margins with whites gave Van Hollen a decisive advantage.

Edwards, conceding defeat at a union hall in predominantly black Prince George’s County, summed up the central conceit of her campaign, as well. “Maryland is on the verge of having an all-male delegation in a so-called progressive state,” she said. “When will our voices be effective, legitimate, equal leaders in a big-tent party? … This is a 21st -century question for the Democratic Party, and it is time for the Democratic Party to call the question.”

Celebrating his victory with a small crowd of supporters at a hotel in predominantly white Bethesda, Van Hollen summed up the transactional nature of his candidacy. He praised retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who, he said, “understood that the job of a Maryland senator was, yes, to engage in the big battles at the national level, but she also understood [that] you never forget the people back home in our neighborhoods and communities and delivering results on the ground.”

With the drama of the Republican primary on one hand and the battles between Clinton and Sanders on the other, it’s easy to think that every fight within a party is about ideology. But Maryland shows that these contests are just as often about the boring parts of politics as they are about rhetoric and belief. Donna Edwards may have made a fine senator, but Maryland voters were looking for someone to help them now.

Read more Slate coverage of the Democratic primary.