Demonstrating the anti-establishment sentiment that has transformed this election season, the progressive Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards has launched a surprisingly successful challenge against the well-connected party insider Chris Van Hollen, also a Democratic Representative in Maryland, in the state's open Senate race.
Both candidates are vying for the seat of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who isn't running for reelection.
"In 2016, as the Bernie Sanders campaign has shown, voters are finding political outsiders like Edwards compelling," as The Nation notes in the magazine's recent cover story.
Edwards is African-American and raised her son as a single mother—at one point forgoing paying the mortgage in order to pay to have her son tested for learning delays—and she argues that her personal experiences and the difficulties she encountered make her the better candidate to represent constituents struggling through today's ever-bleaker economic conditions.
"I know why pharmaceutical lobbyists don’t support me: I want to negotiate prices for prescription drugs. I know why oil and gas and banking interests don't support me."
—Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards
Her opponent, Van Hollen, argues that his centrist tact and willingness to compromise make him the better choice, describing Edwards as impractical and stubborn.
If elected, Edwards would be only the second black woman to be elected to the Senate in United States history.
The race garnered national attention when the super PAC of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), known for its staunch support of black candidates, made the unusual choice of publicly backing Van Hollen, who is white, over Edwards.
Edwards unseated eight-term congressman Alan Wynn eight years ago, and Wynn sits on the board of the PAC. Observers speculated that Wynn had been behind the super PAC's controversial decision.
The civil rights group Color of Change sent a livid email to its members in response to the endorsement, decrying the super PAC as "a mouthpiece for corporate power."
"The [CBC] PAC board is filled with lobbyists, including Al Wynn," Edwards told The Nation. "I know why pharmaceutical lobbyists don’t support me: I want to negotiate prices for prescription drugs. I know why oil and gas and banking interests don't support me."
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Indeed, Edwards is no friend to corporate interests. A fierce critic of Citizens United, Edwards "was the first member of Congress to propose a constitutional amendment to ensure that voters matter more than dollars," observes The Nation.
Local African-American politicians have also largely backed Van Hollen over Edwards. A lawmaker close to Edwards also noted to Politico that she can seem reluctant to hobnob and socialize, instead focusing single-mindedly on her work, and alongside her progressive politics this may have hurt her when it comes to collecting endorsements.
Edwards is not unfamiliar with tackling adversity as she fights for her progressive goals. Before her political career, Edwards "juggled law school and raising her newborn son, then went to work for the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), where she fought fiercely for the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)," The Nation writes, also noting that Edwards' first notable act in Congress was adding Maryland to a program that offered a free dinner at school for impoverished children.
Van Hollen has contrasted himself with Edwards this campaign by describing himself as more pragmatic, willing to compromise, and centrist—and he's painted his opponent as a political extremist, comparing Edwards' fealty to her own ideals as comparable to the stubbornness of the right-wing Tea Party.
Edwards, on the other hand, has criticized Van Hollen for supporting legislation that would have reduced the budget by making cuts to Social Security and raising the age of eligibility for Medicare—a deeply unpopular measure, particularly with progressive voters, as The Nation noted.
The dynamic echoes that between Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in this year's presidential race, observers note.
Edwards got a boost when pro-choice group EMILY's List endorsed her candidacy and purchased over $2 million in advertising for Edwards last month—the most money the organization has ever spent on a single campaign.
Edwards is hugely popular in Baltimore, a majority-black city that is still reeling from the murder of black teenager Freddie Gray one year ago. Edwards has spoken out repeatedly against police brutality, and city prosecutor Marilyn Mosby—who is currently prosecuting the officers responsible for Gray's death—has endorsed Edwards. Elsewhere in the state, however, Edwards' lead is far less certain.
A statewide poll earlier this month showed her ahead of Van Hollen, but more recent polls show Van Hollen surpassing her former lead. The current RealClear Politics average of all polls shows her behind Van Hollen by about 6 points.
"I like Congressman Van Hollen. Some people will say you know, Congressman Van Hollen, he's nice, it's easier for him to get along with people," said Ingrid Turner, a Navy veteran and Democratic circuit court judge candidate, to MSNBC's Irin Carmon. "You know, Donna had to fight for everything. She had to fight to get where she is right now."
"Turner's voice grew more urgent" as she spoke, wrote Carmon, "pointing out that black women make up the most reliable Democratic voters."
"So why can't we have somebody around the table who understands the same thing we had to go through?" Turner said.