Donna Edwards and Others in Congressional Primaries Next Week Hope to Inject More Progressivism Into the Dem. Party

The center of gravity in the Democratic Party is shifting toward progressives in 2016, but the question is how far?

Next Tuesday’s Democratic primaries in Maryland and Pennsylvania will begin to answer that question. There are a handful of races for Congress where the choices mirror what’s seen in the race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, pitting prinicipled idealists against pragmatic insiders. Pennsylvania is especially important because Democrats see it as a state where the incumbent Republican senator is vulnerable and a win there could help them retake that body.

But among progressives, all eyes are on Maryland, and the fiercely fought race between two U.S. Representatives, Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen to replace the retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski. The primary winner is likely to win the fall election and the choice between them is stark. Edwards, an African-American single mother who started as a community activist and has a history of taking bold stances in office, faces Van Hollen, a longtime legislator who quickly became part of the House Democratic fundraising and leadership team and is seen as a valued insider and skilled negotiator.

Edwards’ overarching message is “to make history as only the second African-American women in the Senate,” and the only one in almost a generation since Illinois’ Carol Moseley Braun left office in 1999. Edwards, an energetic, progressive, four-term congresswoman has had an uphill battle as an independent black women without the fundraising prowess and access of Van Hollen, who previously headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Van Hollen has vastly outraised Edwards and has most of the establishment support as a longtime insider—he was a state legislator for 16 years, while Edwards helped create a national domestic violence organization and then headed a Washington-based foundation for six years.  

As with the Sanders-Clinton race, the Washington Post has aggressively sided with Van Hollen backers and made the race a top priority, publishing a Van Hollen-friendly or Edwards-hostile piece virtually everyday, and has been harshly critical of Edwards in its editorials. Both candidates have their share of labor endorsements, but a perceived slight by Edwards of leadership of 1199 Hospital Workers Union has led that group to aggressively spend money to defeat her. This has caused some consternation as to why a union with many minority members would spend a lot of their money to defeat a progressive African-American woman.  

Van Hollen’s financial edge has enabled him to outspend Edwards in negative TV ads in the two biggest media markets, Washington and Baltimore. Not surprisingly, Edwards has fallen behind in recent polling after leading earlier. Still most people expect the race to be decided based upon the ground game and getting out the vote, especially in Baltimore where there is a heated mayoral race between two African-American women. Two-thirds of Baltimore’s electorate are African-American women, which in theory, would likely help Edwards. Her campaign is also urging supporters to work hard on canvassing and getting out the vote. 

Meanwhile Sanders is barnstorming Maryland and may motivate younger voters in Edwards' direction; both Sanders and Edwards are outsiders, won’t take money from Wall Street banks, favor campaign finance reforms, and are under attack by the mainstream media. Edwards' main financial support comes from Emily’s List, the national pro-choice PAC supporting women candidates, which has raised and spent several million dollars on Edwards' behalf. 

The contrast between Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen mirrors the Democratic presidential contest; early on, Edwards pointed out that Van Hollen, during House budget negotiations, was willing to entertain Social Security cuts as part of a federal debt plan. Van Hollen since has backed away from that stance, but Edwards' basic criticism has stuck. Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have endorsed Edwards. DFA spokesman Neil Sroka said Thursday, “The choice is between someone who will be a decent vote in the U.S. Senate versus someone who will be an organizer in the Senate for progressive ideas.”

Tuesday’s Other Races

Other congressional races next week feature strong progressive candidates, especially in the districts where Edwards and Van Hollen are giving up their seats. A majority of Maryland’s fourth congressional district, where Edwards has served, is African American. There the progressive groups have endorsed Joseline Pena-Melnyk, a state legislator since 2006 who has a long record of sponsoring bills pushing for greater fairness and equality. Before that she was an assistant U.S. attorney and a public defender in Philadelphia. Progressives are also backing state Sen. Jamie Raskin in Maryland’s eighth congressional district, where Van Hollen gave up his seat. Raskin, a noted constitutional law professor who is currently the Maryland Senate Democratic whip, is a longtime campaign finance reform advocate who has fought for marriage equality, ending the death penalty and criminal justice reform.

Tuesday also features another U.S. Senate race that reflects the full spectrum of Democrats running in 2016 and is seen as one of the half-dozen races where the party believes it can defeat an incumbent Republican and regain a Senate majority. The party’s primary in Pennsylvania is a four-way contest to challenge incumbent Republican Pat Toomey. The party establishment’s pick is Katie McGinty, an environmental activist-turned-government regulator who has been endorsed by the White House, the state’s governor and unions. There’s also Joe Sestak, an ex-congressman and veteran who lost to Toomey in 2010; Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who worked in community development and non-profits; and John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, a struggling steel town, who boasts he’s not a “traditional, establishment candidate,” wants to address all forms of inequality and endorsed Sanders in January.

Because all of these candidates have staked out a range of center-left stances—with the exception of more populist Fetterman who is in his first statewide race—neither the Progressive Change Campaign Committee nor Democracy for America are endorsing.

Other Progressives Running

These upcoming races just scratch the surface of progressives running for Congress. In mid-March, Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who is now a congresswoman from Illinois, became the state’s Democratic Senate nominee, where she is seen as a strong contender against incumbent Republican Sen. Mark Kirk. Also in mid-March, North Carolina’s Deborah Ross, a lawyer and state legislator for a decade, won its Democratic primary for Senate and barely trails incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr.

In June, there are another half-dozen progressives running in Democratic primaries. In California, state Attorney General Kamala Harris is running for Senate, and civil rights attorney Nanette Barragan is running for a Los Angeles-area House seat. In Nevada, Lucy Flores, one of the first Latino women elected to the state Legislature, is running for a House seat, and state Attorney General Catherine Cortez-Masto is seeking to replace retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Later that month in New York, Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who a few years ago lost to Andrew Cuomo for governor, is running for a House seat, as is Eric Kingson, a professor and co-founder of the national advocacy group Social Security Works.   

Later in the summer, there are yet more progressive candidates in Democratic primaries. In Wisconsin, former Senator Russ Feingold is hoping to return to that body. In Florida, Congressman Alan Grayson is seeking the nomination to fill the seat left open by retiring Republican Sen. Marcio Rubio. His longtime congressional district director, Susanah Randolph, is running in the Democratic House primary to replace him. In Minnesota’s second district, Angie Craig is running in a House race where the Republican incumbent is retiring. In Washington, Seattle activist-turned-state senator Pramila Jayapal is running for House seat vacated by retiring Rep. Jim McDermott. And there are others running, such as former New Hampshire congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, who hopes to retake her seat, and longtime California progressive Rep. Mike Honda who faces a primary challenge from a Silicon Valley technologist.

The results in all these contests will reveal how much the center of gravity in the Democratic Party is shifting in 2016.


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