2016 | Politics

Van Hollen Credits Senate Primary Win to Early Support, Track Record

The Kensington politician sets his sights on November election

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Rep. Chris Van Hollen during his Senate primary victory speech Tuesday at the Bethesda Marriott

Andrew Metcalf

Rep. Chris Van Hollen said Friday securing the early support of Democratic leaders in Maryland and emphasizing his track record of legislative accomplishment and constituent service were two keys to his hard-fought victory over Rep. Donna Edwards in Tuesday’s Democratic Senate primary.

Van Hollen said in a phone interview with Bethesda Beat he couldn’t attribute his victory to just one factor, “but support from key Democratic leaders from across the state provided an important foundation to build on.”

The District 8 congressman said securing early support from Montgomery County leaders such as County Executive Ike Leggett and the entire County Council enabled his campaign to concentrate efforts in other parts of the state where the Kensington Democrat is less well known.

The primary results made it clear Van Hollen, 57, has support in his home county—he garnered  70 percent of the vote to Edwards’s 20 percent. In statewide results, Van Hollen beat Edwards 53 percent to 39 percent.

Edwards, a Prince George’s County resident, outpaced him in her home county by a 2 to 1 ratio and narrowly beat him in Baltimore City and Charles County, but Van Hollen beat her in every other county in the state.

Van Hollen said Edwards called Tuesday night to congratulate him, but he declined to say what the two talked about.

Van Hollen’s decisive win in what was expected to be a close race left some political analysts—namely Joan Walsh at The Nation—wondering about the future diversity of the Democratic Party after it seemed to desert Edwards, who would have been the second black woman elected to the U.S. Senate had she prevailed Tuesday and gone on to win in November. Van Hollen will face Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga, of Baltimore County in November.

Much of the state’s Democratic political establishment, ranging from state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to county executives in Frederick, Prince George’s, Baltimore and Montgomery counties, endorsed Van Hollen. And female elected officials endorsed him by a 4 to 1 margin, according to Van Hollen.

Edwards received significant funding and support from the pro-choice women’s group Emily’s List. The group got its start backing Sen. Barbara Mikulski in her campaign for U.S. Senate in Maryland in 1986 and her upcoming retirement set up the race between Van Hollen and Edwards. In The Nation article, Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock said the group “could not be prouder of standing with Donna Edwards,” despite her running against the progressive, pro-choice Van Hollen.  

With Edwards’s loss and Mikulski’s retirement, it’s possible the Maryland congressional delegation could be all male if Van Hollen and the state’s other Democratic congressional nominees and incumbents win in November.

When Van Hollen was asked whether this concerned him, he pointed to his own focus on supporting issues relevant to blacks and women.

“One of the reasons I had such strong support from women and the African-American community was a track record of focusing on issues that are important to women, families and people of color,” Van Hollen said. “What I heard throughout the state was a desire to have a senator who had a track record of delivering results on issues important to women and families and people of all different races and backgrounds.”

He said he plans to focus his campaign on supporting equality in education and the right to earn a living wage, and reducing gun violence and mass incarceration.

Primary exit polls found Van Hollen received 72 percent of the white vote compared to Edwards’s 19 percent, while Edwards received 57 percent of the black vote compared to 37 percent for Van Hollen. Fifty-three percent of women voted for Van Hollen compared to 39 percent for Edwards, the exit polls found.

But while some political analysts honed in on the identity issue facing the Democratic Party as it loses one of its few prominent black female voices in Congress, others said it was clear Van Hollen won on his own merits and not because he is the son of a diplomat and a man who Miller described as “born to the job” during the campaign.

Jamelle Bouie, writing for the online magazine Slate, said the primary race didn’t come down to identity politics—black vs. white or man vs. woman—because voters chose Van Hollen for his ability to obtain results rather than supporting Edwards for sticking to a progressive ideology that can often lead to gridlock in Congress.

“Van Hollen ran on representation as well, but in the more quotidian sense,” Bouie wrote. “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… .

“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.”

On Friday, Van Hollen said he would continue to focus on local priorities if elected to the Senate. In Montgomery County, he said he would fight for funding for federal entities such as the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology; as well as work to increase the reliability of the Metro system, protect federal funding for the light-rail Purple Line and help reduce traffic congestion along the I-270 corridor.

Van Hollen said he decided to pursue a seat in the Senate, rather than wait for the much-discussed possibility of ascending into the House leadership, for two reasons—the opportunity to represent the entire state and because he believes there’s a good chance Democrats have the opportunity to take back the majority in the Republican-controlled Senate this November. If they do, “that allows us to seize the initiative and set the agenda,” Van Hollen said.

“We have a great state, but we also face many challenges,” he said. “I hope to bring the same energy representing the entire state that I’ve brought to representing the 8th Congressional District. I think there’s a greater opportunity to make an impact in the U.S. Senate.”

Van Hollen thanked his local community, which first elected him as a delegate to the General Assembly in 1990 and helped him unseat Republican Connie Morella in the 8th Congressional District in 2002.

“I do want to say that I’m really grateful to have had the support of Montgomery County throughout this campaign,” Van Hollen said.

The candidate said he’s now shifting his focus to the general election, but said he’s just starting to learn about his Republican opponent. He focused his ire Friday on likely Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and what he described as Trump’s divisive politics.

“It should concern all Marylanders that Donald Trump won the Republican presidential primary in Maryland,” Van Hollen said. “That kind of ugly and divisive politics has no place in the United States of America.”