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What's at stake in the Maryland Democratic Senate primary

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

Update: Rep. Chris Van Hollen has been called the winner of Maryland's Democratic Senate primary.

FREDERICK, MD. — The history of African-American women in the US Senate is a short one. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois was elected to the body in 1992, and served one term there before losing reelection.

That's it.

Today, Maryland Democrats have a chance to lengthen that history, in a primary pitting two members of Congress — Rep. Donna Edwards, who is black, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is white — against each other to fill the retiring Barbara Mikulski's Senate seat.

And Edwards has been unafraid to call out that stunning disparity on the campaign trail. "I feel like the voices of families like mine are just not represented in policy," Edwards said while chatting with supporters in Frederick on Friday. "If we can't do this within the Democratic Party, in Maryland, then when is it going to happen? That's a question we have to ask ourselves."

But when asked about the diversity implications of the race in an interview, Van Hollen answered by arguing, essentially, that he'd be more effective at representing underrepresented communities than Edwards would — and that his endorsements prove it.

"I would respond the way that a majority of the African-American women elected officials in Maryland have responded — which is, they're supporting me," Van Hollen told me. "Because it matters at the end of the day whether you've delivered results for the African-American community and other communities. That is the measure of making a difference in people's lives."

Indeed, the question of Edwards's effectiveness in Congress has come under some very pointed and specific scrutiny in recent weeks. Many major liberal groups have refused to endorse her, and some Maryland politicians have argued that her office fell down on the job in constituent service.

And these accusations may have recently tipped the race toward Van Hollen. For months, the two candidates traded off leads in polls, but Edwards has trailed in the final three to be released, by an average of 10 points.

"The conscience of our party is on the line"

Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty

There are currently zero African-American women in the US Senate. So you can understand why Jessica Byrd, a political consultant volunteering for the Edwards campaign, feels so strongly about this race.

"The conscience of our party is on the line," she told me in Frederick. "When you think about the ways in which we’ve left the clinch voting bloc of the Democratic Party on the side of the road, really — our faces are on the milk carton, and I just think that’s ridiculous."

Indeed, one person in attendance at Edwards's Western Maryland get-out-the-vote kickoff on Friday was 90-year-old Eleanor Smith, who had never voted in her life but had just cast her first-ever ballot for Edwards.

Now, the Edwards campaign doesn't just emphasize diversity merely for its own sake. They argue that Edwards's life experiences — as a single mother who struggled with health care and mortgage payments — predispose her to fight for, as Edwards puts it, "the little people." For instance, she was an anti-domestic violence activist in the 1990s, and won funding for after-school suppers for Maryland students in 2009.

Edwards is also notable for coming to Congress as an outsider — she won her seat in 2008 by primarying an incumbent Democrat from the left, in a race that got attention from national liberal bloggers and activists at the time. And she's known for her support of single-payer health care and opposition to trade.

So it's possible to imagine Edwards, or a candidate like her, building a stronger and more diverse version of the Bernie Sanders coalition. Indeed, Ed Burrell from Point of Rocks, an older white Sanders supporter with anti-establishment leanings, told me he was backing Edwards because he's "always been suspicious of Van Hollen," who he sees as "not a very open guy."

But most people I talked to said they didn't see much of an ideological difference between the two candidates. Van Hollen, after all, has pushed hard for raising taxes on Wall Street and major campaign finance reform. ("I put forward a lot of my economic proposals before Bernie Sanders did," Van Hollen argued to me. "As I say, we’ve got a tax code now that favors those who make money off of money.")

As Byrd sees it, "we have two strong progressives running. But if we're going to get a progressive champion regardless, then when you think of the fact that we haven’t had a black woman in the Senate for the last 17 years and the last one was elected 23 years ago — it’s like a no brainer."

Van Hollen's allies argue that Edwards has been ineffective in Congress

Rep. Chris Van Hollen.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

A Van Hollen victory wouldn't mean a demographic first. And he's definitely not an outsider — his father was an ambassador and his mother worked for the CIA, and he's been a high-ranking member of the House Democratic leadership for several years.

But his campaign and its supporters have had a two-pronged response to the diversity argument coming from the Edwards team.

First, they emphasize the deep and widespread support Van Hollen has gotten from many progressive leaders and groups in the state — including many women of color — and say that that's because Van Hollen can actually get things done.

"I’m proud to have the support of groups like the SEIU and the Sierra Club, Casa de Maryland, which is the largest immigrant rights organization in the state, the UAW, and the founders of the organization Progressive Maryland," Van Hollen told me. He also pointed out that several mayors in Edwards's district who are African-American women have in fact endorsed him.

Second, they argue that Edwards has fallen down on the job as a member of Congress in key ways — failing to appropriately fight for local groups, win allies to her side, or serve her constituents.

For instance, as Rachel Weiner of the Washington Post reported, the SEIU's Baltimore affiliate for health care workers spent heavily to get Edwards elected to Congress — and is now spending big to try to defeat her. Weiner reported that Edwards had failed to defend a unionized hospital in her district.

Edwards has also seemingly failed to build bridges with the Congressional Black Caucus — only four of its 46 members are supporting her, with the rest remaining neutral. According to Politico's Rachael Bade, this is because many of the CBC's members have found Edwards "not an easy colleague to work with."

Perhaps most notably of all, Heather Mizeur, a respected Maryland progressive leader, wrote a brutal op-ed claiming that Edwards's office was terrible at constituent service.

Mizeur claimed that, while she served in the Maryland House of Delegates, she found Van Hollen's staff to be "stellar" at helping out constituents with their concerns on Social Security payments and other governmental issues. As for Edwards's office, she wrote, "no matter how often you called or emailed or pleaded in person to get attention to your problem, it would often be ignored."

In Frederick, Edwards said that this criticism has been "one of the things that's rankled me the most in this campaign." She claimed Mizeur had never bothered to call her while she was representing part of her district.

"I'll just tell you what I do, and how I serve my constituents," she went on. "It bothers me. But you can't respond to and fight everything."

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