CLINTON, Md. — Donna Edwards crystallized her case against Chris Van Hollen here one April night by telling a story about a Mississippi Republican and a space center. The Democratic congresswoman was speaking to only a few dozen voters, most of them African-American, about a half-hour from the nation’s capital, a low-key event for an otherwise rollicking primary that has drawn national attention.
Edwards explained that she had once teamed up with Rep. Steve Palazzo to try and boost funding for the space program, a key issue for her suburban Washington district which includes NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. But her point wasn’t what she did while striking a deal (one that she acknowledged failed in a Senate vote anyway) – it was what she didn’t do.
“The point is that you can negotiate and fight and negotiate hard, and it doesn’t means you have to give up your core principles,” said Edwards, who could be heard in the back of this small hotel meeting room without the aid of a microphone.
“It is important for us to lay down certain markers, lay down markers and say, ‘No matter what, we are not gonna tolerate cuts to things like Social Security and Medicare,’” the 57-year-old continued.
The jab didn’t mention Van Hollen explicitly, but it didn’t need to. Edwards has built a campaign arguing that her fellow congressman from a neighboring district is overly eager to bargain with Republicans, on issues ranging from entitlement programs to campaign spending disclosures. Anyone watching the pair’s boisterous debates or negative TV ads in the battle to replace the retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski knew where she was pointing her ire.
Van Hollen, also 57, has denied he would ever cut Social Security or Medicare, saying his opponent was taking his previous, broad praise of the Simpson Bowles deficit-reduction plan out of context. But his campaign is equally adamant about not backing down from his reputation as a legislative deal-maker, contending that compromise is a prerequisite for effectiveness.
“I know when to fight and when to find common ground,” he said in a late March debate with Edwards in Baltimore. “Because we can’t allow division in Washington to stop all progress for working families.”
At a time when Democrats nationally are sorting through a similar dynamic in the ongoing primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, it’ll be up to Maryland Democrats to make their own choice in the April 26 primary. Four other states — Delaware, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island — hold presidential primaries that day but only Pennsylvania will also choose its congressional candidates.
"The heart of the race is: "Do people want effective government, or do they want pure government?" said CR Wooters, a former chief of staff to Van Hollen. "And we're seeing that all over the place."
Wooters, who supports the congressman, said he hoped “that cooler, more reasonable heads will prevail.” Edwards supporters disagree, arguing that a deep blue state like Maryland should be represented by a candidate even allies describe as part-lawmaker and part-activist.
A week before the primary, polls show a tight race, with Edwards drawing overwhelming support from the African-American voters that make up a large part of the primary electorate and her Prince George's County base, while Van Hollen draws almost as much from white voters and the populous Montgomery County.
Whoever wins will be a favorite to win the general election in a state that, despite electing a Republican governor in 2014, traditionally votes heavily Democratic in presidential years.
The differences between the two candidates are evident when they campaign. Edwards, a single mother, has never had a strong relationship with party leadership and has a talent for relating dry policy proposals to the average person. In that small hotel meeting room, for instance, she had the audience shouting in agreement as she talked about the importance of feeding underprivileged children at school.
“I can’t go a couple of hours without eating something,” she said. “Because if I do, I get a food headache, I can’t concentrate, I can’t focus or anything.”
Van Hollen, on the other hand, is certainly party leadership. The former chairman of the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee is now the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, and a favorite of officials like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (the latter of whom endorsed him shortly after he entered the race).
In an interview, Van Hollen said he does not consider himself a technocrat. But at a March campaign event before several hundred seniors in Silver Spring, Van Hollen — sans suit jacket with his shirt sleeves rolled up — was equally at ease explaining the process of budget reconciliation as he was the mechanics of letting generic drugs onto the market.
That depth of knowledge impressed Shirley Henderson, 87, who introduced the congressman at the event. Henderson said she has watched Van Hollen up close for years as her representative in Congress and was not worried about his stance on Social Security.
“It doesn’t bother me because I trust Chris’s judgment,” she said. “He understands the issues at a much deeper level.”
Henderson acknowledged that the campaign hadn’t gone as well as she had hoped it would – when the race began, most assumed Van Hollen’s expected fundraising advantage over Edwards would lock up a victory.
But Edwards’s support in the African-American community and the critical backing of Emily’s List, which has spent millions of dollars on her behalf, have kept the congresswoman competitive.
Van Hollen’s campaign is confident that it has earned late momentum in the race, thanks in part to criticism from the White House of an ad from a super PAC backing Edwards that seemed to suggest Van Hollen was doing the National Rifle Association's bidding.
Van Hollen is sticking to his message of compromise, though he emphasizes that he does so only in the right situations.
“You already have a tea party in Washington, which is the all-or-nothing part,” Van Hollen said. “That leads to nothing for Maryland or the American people. I do look for common ground when possible, but will fight to the end for fundamental values and issues.”
In an interview, Edwards reiterated there were no proposals possible that could get her to cut entitlement programs.
"I believe Social Security and Medicare are values, they’re not just programs to me," she said. "That’s a very bright line."