Opinion

Did the White House Just Endorse in the Maryland Senate Primary?

Request to pull a super PAC ad signals a preference for Van Hollen

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., campaigning at Leisure World in Montgomery County last month, faces fellow Democrat Rep. Donna Edwards in the Maryland Senate primary. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Here’s what you can expect these days if you’re a Democrat who tried to advance President Barack Obama’s agenda over the last two terms: Hard-hitting attacks from liberals who are envious of the tea party’s success in defeating compromise in Washington.  

Their latest target is Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a kitchen-cabinet adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Van Hollen is matched up against fellow Rep. Donna Edwards in a Maryland Senate primary on April 26 that cleaves the state’s Democratic voters along racial, gender and ideological lines.  

The race is close, with Edwards holding a one point lead in the Real Clear Politics average of the most recent public polling, and benefiting from millions of dollars in interest-group money.  

Edwards and her allies are attacking Van Hollen for a variety of purported sins against progressivism, most notably his efforts to cut deals on the federal budget and campaign finance reform. In both cases, he was acting as an agent of Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House.  

It’s the latter issue, campaign finance reform, on which Van Hollen’s foes have been most disingenuous and spiteful—so much so that, according to news reports, White House political director David Simas asked a super PAC called Working for Us to pull an ad using footage of the president tearfully talking about victims of gun violence to punch Van Hollen for a small concession he made to the National Rifle Association on a White House-backed bill that had nothing to do with guns.  

Obama is officially neutral in the race, but congressional Democrats I spoke to about the episode said they read the White House’s intervention as an implicit endorsement of Van Hollen. Even if it's just a shield for a longtime ally, it's a clear foul call against Van Hollen's rival, who is running a similar ad that doesn't include the president's image. That measure of support for a political friend is uncommon for a president who has tried not to muddy his hands in intraparty electoral fights.  

At the time, Van Hollen was trying to advance the DISCLOSE Act, which would have forced dark-money super PACs to make new disclosures about their donors, including on-screen disclosure of their top contributors in television ads. It was a top priority for Obama, for House Democrats and for Senate Democratic leaders, including New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer.  

Initially, the National Rifle Association was opposed to the bill, and that kept centrist Blue Dog Democrats from signing on to it. So, Democratic leaders, in a successful effort to neutralize the NRA, created a targeted exemption for nonprofit groups with large memberships. The bill, after all, was designed to stop small numbers of anonymous wealthy donors from affecting elections by buying ads.  

Some progressives, including Edwards, raised a ruckus over the NRA exemption, and party leaders responded by changing the membership threshold in response to the backlash, giving the NRA’s exemption to additional groups on the left. Then the Pelosi-led House passed it in the face of opposition from Edwards, 35 other Democrats, and all but two of the Republicans who voted. At the time, prescient political observers said Edwards was positioning herself for a future Senate run against Van Hollen.  

I remember the fight well: The Working for US PAC ad includes material from a story I co-wrote with two of my then-colleagues.  

The irony, of course, is that the bill’s failure to clear the Senate means that the Working for US PAC doesn’t have to disclose its donors. And that was the idea for the Chamber of Commerce, big labor and various special-interest groups that objected to any hindrance to their ability to spend unlimited sums of money on political advertising.  

Whatever you think of the DISCLOSE Act, Van Hollen’s role was that of lead negotiator for Democratic leaders on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue who wanted to do something about the torrent of unregulated campaign cash unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. I should also make a disclosure here: My father, a resident of Maryland, planted a Van Hollen sign in the front yard outside the house I grew up in. I don’t vote in Maryland.  

Like the DISCLOSE Act, Van Hollen has taken fire for leaving the door open at one time to pegging Social Security benefit changes to a measure of the consumer price index short-handed as “chained CPI.” The White House included the chained index proposal in its budget for several years, and it was always meant to be a carrot for Republicans to sign on to a larger deficit-reduction deal with concessions to progressives.  

Throughout Van Hollen’s career as a legislator, dating back to his days in the state Senate, he’s developed a reputation for fashioning creative legislative deals with strange political bedfellows to benefit his constituents, his party and the larger goals of the progressive movement. At times, that has meant compromising on smaller items to advance the larger agenda.  

Maryland Democrats have a choice: A lawmaker who has been among Obama's most loyal allies or a back-bencher who preferred taking ideological stands against the president to making laws. It now seems clear which type the White House prefers.  

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