National progressives are clamoring for Hillary Clinton vs. Elizabeth Warren. They might have to settle for the next best thing — Chris Van Hollen vs. Donna Edwards.
With Warren repeatedly stressing she will not challenge Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, the latter matchup will come in the U.S. Senate race in Maryland. A bitter battle is shaping up on the Democratic side to succeed Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who has been in office for the past 18 years.
“It’s turning into a de-facto progressive-establishment matchup,” said Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Edwards, a U.S. representative from the D.C. area of Maryland who officially entered into the race on Tuesday, is the progressive candidate du jour. And with good reason — she came up through the grassroots system, ultimately spearheading an effort to pass the 1994 Violence Against Women Act from her perch at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
If Edwards is playing the part of Warren, Van Hollen is this race’s Hillary Clinton. By no means a moderate, Van Hollen, also a D.C.-area representative, nevertheless has extensive ties to the Democratic establishment. He’s the former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And he’s viewed as a potential heir to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Slight differences in economic philosophy will likely come to the forefront of the primary battle.
Edwards is “not just a progressive ally — she's one of us,” said Stephanie Taylor, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a grassroots group that led an effort to draft Edwards into the race.
“Donna was a community activist, she led the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and she's devoted her time in Congress to taking on powerful interests on behalf of everyday families. In the Senate, she'll fight alongside Elizabeth Warren for an economic populist agenda that includes expanding Social Security benefits, making college more affordable, and holding Wall Street accountable."
According to the left-leaning site Daily Kos’ analysis of voteview.org’s ideology ranking, Van Hollen sits at the medium of the ideological spectrum of Maryland’s congressional delegation according to his voting patterns. Edwards is the most liberal.
But unlike the potential Warren vs. Clinton showdown, the Edwards-Van Hollen fight adds a demographic twist. Edwards could become the second African-American woman ever elected to the Senate, and the first since 1993.
“It matters that she would be the second African-American woman senator in U.S. history,” said Neil Sroka, the communications director of Democracy for America, which joined in the effort to draft Edwards into the race. That is something all Marylanders can be proud of.”
Edwards launched an opening salvo in her campaign’s introductory video on Tuesday. She said she would “stand up to anyone” who would compromise Social Security and Medicare, adding that there were no, “ifs, ands, buts, or ‘willing to consider’” addendums to that promise.
That was a not-so-veiled reference to a now-infamous quote among progressives from Van Hollen in 2012, when he said he was “willing to consider” changes to Social Security and a raise in the Medicare retirement age as part of a so-called “Grand Bargain” to reduce the national deficit.
Progressive favorites like Warren have in the past year and a half launched a spirited effort to maintain those two entitlement programs in their current form — even expand them.
“Maryland progressives shouldn’t settle for someone who’s a good vote on most of the issues most of the time,” Sroka said. “This is a chance to put in place a history-making fighter like Donna Edwards. That’s really what it comes down to.”
Meanwhile, some big names in the Democratic establishment have come out with full-throated support of Van Hollen. In what some observers saw as an attempt to push other potential candidates out of the race, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid last Friday took the extraordinary step of endorsing Van Hollen more than a year and a half away from the election.
“Not only would Chris Van Hollen be the best and most effective person for the job, I have no doubt that he is in the best and strongest position to make sure that this Senate seat remains in Democratic hands in a state that just elected a Republican governor,” Reid said in a statement.
Van Hollen and Edwards are the clear favorites at this point. But a wild card could shake up the race even more and make it more intriguing — particularly one from the Baltimore area. The city’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a 44-year-old African-American woman, has said she is considering a run.
She could make inroads because of her potential to attract young and minority voters. And about half of Maryland’s media market runs through Baltimore, a boon for Rawlings-Blake and a potential detriment for the D.C.-area representatives.
“She’s probably more well known than Van Hollen and Edwards because she’s mayor of a major city with a large media market,” Skelley said.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.