Last night, Chris Van Hollen defeated fellow DC-area representative Donna Edwards to become the Democratic nominee for Maryland's Senate seat. Since Maryland is a deep blue state, that means he is likely to become Maryland's next Senator.
The race was hard-fought. Both are staunch progressives. Van Hollen is a white man, Edwards is a black woman. Van Hollen is more of an establishment type, Edwards has more of an insurgent flavor. Ultimately, Van Hollen won by 14 points -- 53% to 39%.
What accounts for Van Hollen's win? The Nation put up its take on the matter, which is worth reading. But as a native Marylander who has followed both Van Hollen and Edwards throughout their careers, and who has supported each from their very first congressional primary, I think I can provide some more fine-grained analysis. The short version, though, is this: Donna Edwards is a fine progressive and a fine politician. But Chris Van Hollen is the type of political talent that only comes along a few times in a generation. He won because he is very, very good at what he does.
A bit of background on the candidates. Chris Van Hollen was born in Karachi, Pakistan to diplomatic parents, and came up through the ranks of the Maryland state legislature. I first became aware of Van Hollen in 2002, when he was running in the Democratic primary to challenge my incumbent congressional representative, Connie Morella (R). I remember that race distinctly because I was very excited at our prospects of beating Morella that year -- because "she's being challenged by a Kennedy!" The Kennedy in question was state delegate Mark Shriver, and he started the race as a front-runner (as Kennedys are prone to do in Democratic primaries). But as I did more research, I became more and more impressed with Van Hollen. The guy is smart, a true policy wonk. That might be enough to make me swoon, but of course being a wonk is only one attribute of an ideal politician. You also want someone who can actually get things done -- a legislator, a dealmaker. And you also, of course, want someone who can connect with the voting population, who cares about what everyday people think and can sell his proposals on the ground. A lot of politicians only have one of these skills. Very good ones have two. Chris Van Hollen has all three. I sensed that in 2002, and jumped ship to support him in the primary, which he won (and then did unseat Morella in the general). And my instincts have been 100% confirmed by his tenure in the House, where he has been both a staunch progressive and a guy who gets things done.
Donna Edwards emerged on the political scene in 2006, when she challenged a Democratic incumbent -- Albert Wynn -- in Maryland's 4th congressional district. Wynn was out-of-touch, perceived as in the pocket of big business, and way too conservative for his district. Edwards barely lost the 2006 primary, but came back to rout Wynn in 2008 and entered Congress. I was glad to see her -- again, it is a good thing when staunch progressives replace out-of-touch conservatives. And the fact that she was the first black woman elected to Maryland's congressional delegation was worth cheering for too. In Congress, Edwards' voting record has been nearly identical to Van Hollen's -- unabashedly progressive. But as befits someone who came to power by challenging an incumbent in her own party, Edwards has been more of a confrontational figure. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and it has certainly helped her popularity in some quarters. But it does mean that she -- and even her backers will concede this -- did not build up the same level of relationships as did Van Hollen and was less concerned with the nuts and bolts of getting things through Congress. In a sense, she's much like Bernie Sanders -- great at rallying a crowd, but less concerned with the in-the-weeds work of making things happen.
Chris Van Hollen has been laying the foundation of a Senate bid for a long time. And that meant he had been cultivated allies throughout Maryland for years. There's a reason why most of the Democratic establishment lined up behind Van Hollen, and there's a reason why most of the establishment that didn't stayed out entirely (for example, only three members of the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Edwards, the caucus as a whole stayed neutral). It's because he had spent years putting in the time and effort to work Marylanders of all stripes and all backgrounds. He didn't just rely on his progressive record in the abstract, strong as it was. He put in the work.
There's another thing to remember about the "establishment" support Van Hollen earned in Maryland. Maryland is unique state in American political life. There are six states in the U.S. where more than 25% of the population is Black. Maryland is one of them. The other five are Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. One of these states is not like the others. One of these states is solid blue. There are many states where the state Democratic Party has a large and influential Black base. And there are many states where the state Democratic Party effectively runs the show, because the state is reliably Democratic. Maryland is the only state that is in both column "a" and column "b". And what that means is that Van Hollen being backed by Maryland's Democratic establishment meant getting a lot of backing from a lot of powerful Black officials. And that, ultimately, is what proved to be the difference.
The easy way of putting this is by noting that Van Hollen did better among Black voters (Edwards won them 2:1) than Edwards did among White voters (Van Hollen took them 3:1). But, while true, even that's misleading. There are two main knots of Black voters in the state of Maryland: Prince George's County and Baltimore City. PG County is Edwards' base, and she ran up the score there (as Van Hollen did in his base of Montgomery County). But Baltimore was neutral turf -- neither one represented the city in Congress. And in Baltimore Edwards barely got over 50% of the vote, even though the city is 2/3 African-American.
Edwards remarked at some point -- I think it was in her concession speech -- that it is not enough for Democratic politicians to parachute into Black churches the Sunday before election day and call it a day. And she's right! And the reason that Chris Van Hollen won, ultimately, is that he didn't do that. He had been working with the Black community, and many other communities throughout Maryland, for years -- in all the small and miniature ways that don't make headlines but do add up come election time. He put in the work. And if there's another White progressive out there who's hoping to follow in the footsteps of Bernie Sanders, he or she could do better than to look to Chris Van Hollen on how to earn the support of a diverse community, not just assume it as a birthright.