Last night in Maryland, Hillary Clinton cruised to a 30-point victory over Bernie Sanders in the state’s primary. But a more instructive race may have happened down the ballot, where Rep. Chris Van Hollen won the Democratic primary for Senate in a testy battle with Rep. Donna Edwards. As in many down ballot contests, the primary—in which two Maryland Democrats fought to replace a Democrat who has held her seat since 1987—was the race.
So what might this tell us about Hillary Clinton?
Well, the race between Van Hollen, who represents Maryland’s eighth district, and Edwards, who represents its fourth, shares its themes with the party’s presidential campaign season: Edwards situated herself as a bold progressive in opposition to her establishment, deal-cutting, centrist opponent, Van Hollen. This, from a ThinkProgress article about the race, spells out one way it splintered along many of the same fault lines as the battle between Clinton and Sanders:
On the campaign trail, the candidates have tried to highlight their differences. They have sparred over trade and gun control, two areas in which they disagree. Van Hollen, considered a more “establishment” Democratic but also progressive on women’s issues, has touted his leadership in the House and has criticized Edwards’ effectiveness and willingness to compromise.
With both candidates being some shade of progressive, the Maryland primary, much like the national Democratic one, forced the political operatives who control fundraising money to make some tough decisions. Edwards’ campaign was propped up by some of the nation’s leading progressive institutes, including EMILY’s List (a major Hillary booster), which backed Edwards with over two million dollars. The group’s decision to support Edwards and not Van Hollen, a decidedly pro-women representative with more experience than his opponent, was seen as divisive within the state, as this Washington Post article details. In response to EMILY List’s support, over 1,000 Democratic women rebuked the organization in an open letter published in the Baltimore Sun.
Edwards had trouble winning not over women, but also African-Americans. An uncomfortable truth about Edwards’ campaign was that the Congressional Black Caucus declined to endorse her. That Edwards is black and Van Hollen is white made this an extraordinary development. Wrote Politico of the CBC’s decision:
Sources said the PAC felt uncomfortable giving Edwards a nod of support after hearing from local elected African-American officials in Maryland who support Van Hollen.
Sources said former Rep. Al Wynn — whom Edwards unseated in 2008 — noted her lack of endorsements among black officials in the state, making the case that the CBC PAC should not trump the opinion of local elected representatives.
Only four of the 46 CBC members — Reps. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, Lacy Clay of Missouri, Robin Kelly of Illinois and Hank Johnson of Georgia — are backing Edwards over Van Hollen, an unusually small number for a group known for standing by fellow African-American lawmakers. Meanwhile, Van Hollen has been making hay over his growing number of endorsements from black political leaders in Maryland, including some in Edwards’ district, though he has yet to be endorsed by a CBC member.
The race was tight enough that money came in from everywhere. On Monday, The Intercept reported that Democratic sugar daddy Haim Saban had funded a full 1/6th of Van Hollen’s Super PAC, which it wrote had been “barraging” Edwards with ads and mailers, as Super PACs are wont to do. Saban notoriously cares almost entirely about the sovereignty of Israel, a position that is shared generally within the Democratic party, Van Hollen included.
In a Senate primary race as tight and meaningful as this one, where were Sanders and Clinton? The answer, it appears, was nowhere to be found. Each national candidate does have their own problems to be worrying about. But given a specific criticism of Sanders by Clinton supporters, the absence of her voice in the race might be particularly puzzling.
Sanders has said himself that he is unsure of whether he would help fundraise for down-ballot Democrats, an arguably troubling position that he nonetheless boxed himself into by branding himself as the usurper of the party structure. Pro-Clinton folks have pounced on Sanders’ reticence to help the Democratic party in state-level races that help decide the makeup of Congress, as spelled out in this entertaining if not exactly accurate battering of the candidate on Medium.
Sanders, true to his word, did squat for Edwards, though given his own numbers in the state there probably isn’t much he could have done to help. But if the reverse of the above contention is true—that unlike Sanders, Clinton will be a champion for lower-level Democratic candidates—then where was she in Maryland? She endorsed Edwards in November 2015, but in a group of 70, and she appears to have done nothing further for Edwards in the proceeding four months.
Clinton supporters have also honed in on Sanders’ lack of support among minorities, and black people especially. Yet Clinton declined to throw her weight around on behalf of Edwards, who stood to become only the second black woman in the history of the Senate. That Van Hollen received money from Saban, Hillary’s top moneyman, and was generally protected by the Democratic leadership, makes her lack of involvement even richer, given the issues on which Clinton and Sanders supporters have generally divided themselves.
Clinton may throw her weight around when she, along with Van Hollen, is officially the party’s candidate, but Van Hollen is assured of victory. If Sanders sitting out the race confirms the worst characterizations of his candidacy, then what does it say that Clinton did, too?
Maybe it says nothing. Or everything. Like so much of race between Clinton and Sanders, the evil is in the eye of the beholder.