BALTIMORE — In the first televised debate of the Maryland Senate campaign, Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen sparred fiercely on Friday over who is better prepared to protect Social Security and fight off unfair trade deals. Both candidates accused the other of lying about their record.
The argument in the Democratic primary was heated at times, especially when the conversation turned to entitlement spending and domestic economic policy.
In the most notable exchange, Edwards attacked Van Hollen for supporting a 2010 deficit-reduction plan known as Simpson-Bowles that would have reduced Social Security benefits — an accusation he said simply wasn’t true.
“You wanted to trade it away,” the 4th District congresswoman said from the stage of University of Baltimore's auditorium. “Mr. Van Hollen wanted to trade it away in an effort to cut a deal, and I just think there is no deal to be cut on the backs of our senior citizens.”
Van Hollen shot back: “Maryland voters deserve the truth.”
“And Congresswoman Edwards is not telling the truth,” said Van Hollen, who like Edwards represents a Washington-area congressional district —the 8th. “I have been leading the fight on behalf of House Democrats to protect Social Security and Medicare as recently, again, as two weeks ago.”
The combative tone was in keeping with one of the nation’s most competitive primaries, a showdown that will likely decide who replaces Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski.
Polls show a neck-and-neck contest, with Edwards holding a slight lead roughly five weeks before the April 26 primary. The seat is all but certain to remain Democrat, according to Rothenberg & Gonzales/Roll Call's Race Ratings .
The passion was evident before the debate began, when dozens of supporters — some armed with bullhorns and campaign signs — marched in favor of either Van Hollen or Edwards outside of the hall. The two factions led opposing chants, in what appeared to be an informal contest to see which group could yell their candidates’ name the loudest.
Friday’s event, the second time the candidates have debated after attending a radio debate last week, exposed the same differences between them that have surfaced over months of intense campaigning. Edwards would accuse Van Hollen, a House Democratic leader, of being too quick to compromise and abandon the average middle-class worker, pointing out that he had backed nine of the last 11 trade deals.
"You cannot, on the one hand, vote for these free trade deals, and on other hand say that you support American workers," Edwards said.
Time and time again, Van Hollen — who defended his stance on trade deals by noting endorsements from the Service Employees International Union and the United Auto Workers — fired back that Edwards might say she supports entitlement spending, but her record of actually fighting for the programs is thin.
“The one difference between us up here on this, is actually I’ve been in the trenches leading the fight to protect Social Security and Medicare,” he said. “Congressman Edwards talks about it on the campaign trail, but she’s has not been a part of this battle. She’s not been part of it until the campaign, where she deiced to play politics.”
The candidates were less divisive when the debate turned toward foreign policy, with both agreeing with President Barack Obama’s decision to re-open relations with Cuba and strike a nuclear-arms deal with Iran. They also opposed sending combat forces to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
On the campaign trail, Van Hollen has been critical of Edwards’s performance as a lawmaker, including constituent service. He repeated that criticism Friday, saying it’s proof that her record doesn’t match her rhetoric.
“On all these issues, the question is, when you hear of a problem, what kind of action do you take?” he said. “Because she says she likes to walk in other people’s shoes, but when other people walk into her office, she hasn’t been there.”
Edwards used her closing remarks to make the case that her experience as a black woman is something voters should consider when making their decision. She recounted a story from Mikulski — the longtime senator once explained that she was told during her first campaign that she didn’t "look like a senator."
“On April 26, we have an opportunity to make history again and to send a person into the U.S. Senate that really reflects the great vision of who we are,” Edwards said.
The campaigns will have two more debates and a handful of town halls before the primary.
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.