At times, Monday night’s debate between the major candidates for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen, mirrored the contentious primary race for the 8th District seat being vacated by Van Hollen.
A standing room-only crowd of 600 that packed the Silver Spring Civic Center saw two avowedly liberal candidates who—with the notable exception of international trade—exhibited no major differences on public policy issues. As during recent debates in the nine-way 8th District race, the frequently sharp clashes between Edwards and Van Hollen arose out of differing resumes and styles—as well as the manner in which they are conducting and financing their campaigns in a race that recent polls show to be a dead heat.
The Silver Spring session was the final debate between Edwards and Van Hollen prior to the April 26 primary, and served to both reiterate and expand upon issues that have arisen between the two in a series of forums in the Baltimore and Washington areas over the past month.
Monday night’s most heated exchange centered on campaign finance reform. Both Edwards, of Prince George’s County, and Van Hollen, a Kensington resident, agreed that the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC—which opened the way for creation of so-called “Super PACs”—should be rolled back. But their agreement largely ended there.
“I’m proud in this campaign to have issued an anti-Super PAC pledge,” declared Van Hollen, alluding to independent expenditure groups that, unlike traditional campaign committees, are allowed to accept unlimited personal and corporate contributions. “And unfortunately, my opponent refused to sign that anti-Super PAC agreement.”
While Van Hollen’s personal campaign committee has outraised its Edwards counterpart by a wide margin, many observers credit Women Vote!, a Super PAC affiliated with EMILY’s List, with keeping the Edwards campaign financially competitive over the past year. To date, Women Vote! has pumped at least $2.4 million into promoting Edwards, who, if elected, would become the second African-American woman elected to the Senate.
“In this race, I am proud to have the strong support of EMILY’s List—which is not the Koch brothers, is not dark money, [which] is supporting pro-choice Democratic women for elective office…because they believe that the United States Senate shouldn’t just be 20 percent women it should be 50-plus percent women,” Edwards declared. Her reference to the Koch brothers involves billionaire businessmen who have funded organizations allied with the tea party movement.
“Look here, if you’re going to be against Super PACs, you don’t get to pick and choose your favorite Super PACS, because Republicans would love to pick the Koch brothers’ Super PACs,” Van Hollen told Edwards.
Edwards proceeded to take a swipe at a recent independent expenditure effort to boost Van Hollen’s candidacy by a National Association of Realtors Super PAC. “I am also proud, Mr. Van Hollen, to identify [with] EMILY’s List as opposed to the Realtors—who spent $50 million lobbying Congress,” said Edwards. “They spent $2 million re-electing [Senate Republican Leader] Mitch McConnell, they spent a million dollars on your campaign.”
Van Hollen then pointed out that Edwards had accepted $25,000 in contributions from the Realtors.
But the sharpest exchanges of the debate erupted when Edwards—echoing a point being highlighted in a recent attack ad being run by her campaign—criticized Van Hollen for exempting the National Rifle Association from legislation he sponsored in the wake of the Citizens United v. FEC decision to force greater disclosure by Super PACs.
“When Mr. Van Hollen put forward his disclosure bill, I was all for it—and then he decided to have a meeting with lobbyists from the National Rifle Association,” Edwards said. “And, immediately following that, he exempted the National Rifle Association from disclosure—some of the worst offenders who were buying off politicians and keeping us from getting sensible gun regulation. And when he did that, I went to the floor and opposed his disclosure bill.”
Van Hollen bristled at Edwards’s suggestion that he had caved into the NRA. “I have led the fight against the NRA. In fact, it was one of the first fights I had in the Maryland legislature,” said Van Hollen, who served in Annapolis for 12 years prior to his 2002 election to Congress. “I never got more hate mail in my life.”
As he has in the past, Van Hollen said the NRA exemption in the legislation, the DISCLOSE Act, was part of a move to exempt a number of large, membership-based organizations—including the labor unions and the Sierra Club—to facilitate passage of the bill. He noted that the legislation, in its final form, had been backed not only by President Obama but also retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, whose seat Edwards and Van Hollen hope to occupy in the next Congress.
When the debate’s moderator, long-time local TV news anchor Gordon Peterson, tried to turn the questioning to another topic, Van Hollen persisted in defending his record on gun control.
“I want to use my time for a moment on the issue of gun violence. Let me just say on that DISCLOSE Act, only two Republicans voted for it… and all the tea party people voted against it,” he said. Noting that the bill had passed the House but failed to gain sufficient votes in the Senate, he gibed, “Unfortunately, because of votes like Congressman Edwards on the Senate side, we don’t have disclosure today.”
Continued Van Hollen: “I have an F rating from the NRA, well earned, well deserved. So I’ve been on the front lines on this issue—it’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another thing to fight for it.” The statement was clearly an effort to tie in to recent criticisms of Edwards’ effectiveness as a legislator by Van Hollen and some of his leading supporters.
Still, Edwards persisted. “I’ve been on the front lines of this,” she said of the gun violence issue. “And I’ll tell you one thing—there’s not a deal that I would cut that would exempt the National Rifle Association from telling how they’re buying off politicians.”
Earlier, Edwards and Van Hollen crossed swords over international trade, with Edwards complaining that Van Hollen had supported nine of 11 trade agreements to come before Congress in recent years. Responding to a question on income inequality, Edwards said, “I think it’s important for us to look at what has driven the income inequality, and it is the reason that I have opposed all the trade agreements that have come through our Congress. We have to stop supporting trade policies that trade away American jobs, that trade away Maryland jobs.”
Van Hollen cited his opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement when he first arrived in Congress, as well his opposition to the pending Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal involving 12 nations on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. “So I think you need to look at any agreement on its own merits and ask yourself, ‘Will it increase American wages and American jobs?’ ” he said. “…Go down to the Port of Baltimore. This state depends on our exports, it depends on the activity there.”
To the cheers of her supporters in the audience, Edwards told Van Hollen, “It would have been great if you had been part of our coalition in the Congress working to stop the [Trans Pacific Partnership] instead of waiting until the last minute [when] you got into this race.”
To the responding cheers of his partisans, Van Hollen shot back, “I do believe it’s important to read an agreement before you decide whether you’re for something or against it.”
Replied Edwards, “I have read these agreements, so it spurious for you to charge that I haven’t read the agreement—and therefore I don’t have a right to say no to them.”
But, reflecting a TV attack ad launched by his campaign over the weekend, Van Hollen sought to raise the issue of Edwards’ effectiveness as a legislator toward the end of the debate. “We need to look for opportunities where possible to find common ground,” said Van Hollen. “Now, there are differences on this issue. An independent non-partisan group that was set up by former [Republican] Sen. Dick Lugar, who lost to a tea party person in the primary, rates members of Congress on their willingness to find common ground. Congresswoman Edwards was ranked dead last among all Democrats.”
Protested Edwards: “It’s really beneath Congressman Van Hollen to point to that Lugar Center rating. It only measures how many bills you cosponsor. That’s kind of a bogus rating.”
Van Hollen, however, pressed the effectiveness issue in his closing statement. “It’s easy to identify these issues and to vote on them,” he said, after listing a number of priority issues for Democrats. “But it’s another thing to put together proposals that address them. I’m pleased to have put together proposals on these issues, because I never thought it was enough just to talk the talk. You gotta walk the walk.”
In her closing, Edwards, who would be the state’s first black senator, appealed to both African-Americans—recent polls show her with a big lead among this group, which could total as much as 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate—as well as female voters.
“When Barbara Mikulski ran for the United States Senate [in 1986], people in the political establishment told her she shouldn’t do it, that she couldn’t win,” Edwards declared. “Sen. Mikulski likes to say that ‘People said then that I didn’t look the part. Today, the part looks like me.’ And, on April 26, we have an opportunity…to make history.”
Mikulski recently reiterated that she is remaining neutral in the battle over her successor. The winner of the Edwards-Van Hollen primary will be a heavy favorite to win the November general election.