Contentious Senate Race in Maryland Exposes Democratic Party’s Fissures

Donna Edwards
Donna Edwards / AP

Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards lost a bitter fight for the state’s vacant Senate seat Tuesday night, forecasting expanding cracks in the Democratic party as the 2016 election remains unexpectedly competitive.

Edwards, a black single mom, fell to seven-term Rep. Chris Van Hollen despite record-high voter turnout among African Americans in the state. A victory would have positioned Edwards as the first black senator to represent Maryland in the chamber and the second black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.

In a polarizing concession speech, Edwards ripped on the left for failing to back a woman of color.

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"To my Democratic Party, let me say today: Maryland is on the verge of having an all-male delegation in a so-called progressive state," Edwards said. "When will the voices of people of color; when will the voices of women; when will the voice of labor; when will the voices of black women; when will our voices be effective, legitimate, equal leaders in a big-tent party?"

Van Hollen is expected to defeat his Republican challenger Kathy Szeliga in November as the two compete for Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s seat, who is retiring after 30 years in the chamber.

Lawmakers have criticized Edwards as a polarizing figure who is "difficult" to work with and "ineffective." She hit back during a press call Friday, accusing her Democratic colleagues of sounding the racial "foghorn."

"I thought the Republican Party was full of dog whistles but the Democratic Party has a foghorn," she told reporters.

Edwards last week met privately with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in an attempt to sway support, but only four of the 46 members ended up backing her senate bid. A source familiar with the Congressional Black Caucus told Politico that "she has not developed good relationships" with the group’s members and many "find her difficult."

Edwards ran to the left of Van Hollen, touting her uncompromising dedication to liberal ideals. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D, Va.), who endorsed Van Hollen, criticized her rigid approach toward lawmaking.

"The choice in this election is very clear," Connolly told the Associated Press last week. "It is whether the people of Maryland want somebody who can be effective, or somebody who's going to bask in her own feelings of moral superiority because of various and sundry factors, and effectiveness has nothing to do with it."

Van Hollen’s campaign consistently argued that race and gender shouldn’t be a leading factor in the race, pointing instead to the congressman’s reputation as a pragmatic leader.

The fissure between Edwards and Van Hollen is a microcosm of the Democratic party’s competing narratives that has become exacerbated throughout the 2016 presidential primary election.

The generational and racial gulf between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I, Vt.) has revealed stark divisions along the party’s platform.

Similar to Edwards, Sanders, who has gripped overwhelming backing from millennials, is running as an idealist progressive who vows to shift the party further left. Clinton has meanwhile positioned herself as a pragmatist who will serve as an extension to Obama’s legacy.