The race for Maryland’s open Senate seat has made an unapologetic veer to the left by the two heavyweight Democratic candidates, Reps. Donna F. Edwards and Chris Van Hollen, both striving to claim the liberal mantle on gun control and trade.
Mr. Van Hollen, whose base is in Montgomery County, has the support of many of the state’s top Democrats and earned the endorsement Monday of former Gov. Martin O’Malley. Ms. Edwards, whose district centers on Prince George’s County, is backed by Emily’s List, Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
The battle turned decidedly ugly in the final days before Tuesday’s primary — an election that, in deep-blue Maryland, will almost certainly determine the winner come November.
Ms. Edwards assailed Mr. Van Hollen for what she called insufficient support of gun control.
The issue grew so heated that the White House stepped in to castigate a pro-Edwards political action committee for using President Obama to attack her opponent in one ad.
Mr. Van Hollen, meanwhile, says Ms. Edwards isn’t telling Maryland voters the truth and that she has produced few results during her five terms in Congress.
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Polling showed a tight race for some time, though recent surveys have given Mr. Van Hollen the edge.
“She appears to be so liberal as to be too liberal for Maryland, which is unusual,” said Richard E. Vatz, a professor at Towson University and a longtime observer of Maryland politics.
The race also has racial overtones. Ms. Edwards, who is black, has complained that fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus have not jumped to her side.
The contest could hinge in part on black voter turnout in Prince George’s County municipalities and Baltimore, which choose mayoral candidates as well.
The primary contests also are taking place during remembrances of Freddie Gray, a black man whose death in the custody of Baltimore police a year ago helped reignite racial tensions in the city and across the country.
With Mr. Van Hollen and Ms. Edwards looking to move to the upper chamber, their congressional seats are also on the primary ballot.
SEE ALSO: Prince George’s County voters welcome paper ballots in Maryland primary elections
Ms. Edwards’ district has attracted a half-dozen Democrats, including former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who lost the 2014 governor’s race, and former Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey. Nearly a dozen other Democrats are fighting to succeed Mr. Van Hollen, including state Senate Majority Whip Jamie Raskin, self-funding wine magnate David Trone and Kathleen Matthews, wife of MSNBC host Chris Matthews.
Both of those seats are considered safe for Democrats, as is the Senate seat. Still, more than a dozen Republicans have filed to run for Senate, including state House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga and Chrys Kefalas, who worked as an aide to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., served as a speechwriter for former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., and is openly gay.
Analysts said it’s difficult to point to major policy differences between Mr. Van Hollen and Ms. Edwards.
Mr. Van Hollen does bring more top-level experience, having served as a member of the House Democratic leadership team and as the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee — but that also has created an opening for Ms. Edwards and her allies.
The most controversial ad of the race was run by Working for Us PAC, which is backing Ms. Edwards. The ad features an emotional Mr. Obama talking about gun control and goes on to say that Mr. Van Hollen has “met with NRA lobbyists” to craft a loophole allowing the National Rifle Association to skirt campaign finance laws.
That is a reference to a 2010 bill intended to increase campaign finance transparency. It included certain carve-outs in an effort to win conservative support.
The White House objected, saying it seemed the ad was trying to say Mr. Van Hollen and Mr. Obama were at odds. The PAC said it would remove Mr. Obama from the ad but told Politico it stood by the underlying facts.
Mr. Van Hollen said the bill had nothing to do with gun violence. He said the legislation was supported by Mr. Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the retiring senator whom the candidates are vying to succeed.
Ms. Edwards said Mr. Van Hollen shouldn’t have been working with the NRA on any issue. One of her campaign ads features the mother of a 3-year-old girl from Baltimore who was killed by a stray bullet.
“When my opponent and the NRA cut a backroom deal so they could keep buying off politicians, I called them on it — and we won,” Ms. Edwards says in the ad.
She also has assailed Mr. Van Hollen for supporting overseas trade deals and for appearing open in the past to cuts to entitlement programs as part of negotiating a broader budget deal.
As the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Mr. Van Hollen was part of the 2011 deficit “supercommittee” that considered limiting the growth of Social Security benefits. No plan emerged from the panel, and the congressman said he did not support those proposed changes.
“Ms. Edwards has not been telling Maryland voters the truth,” Mr. Van Hollen said in a debate on WAMU radio last month. He said he has been leading the fight against cuts to Social Security.
“It’s interesting that Ms. Edwards is not running on her record,” he said. “A lot of rhetoric, but no results, no record.”
Ms. Edwards, who wants to become the second black woman in history to be elected to the U.S. Senate, said in the WAMU debate that race shouldn’t be a determining factor but is a consideration for voters.
“I think race does matter,” she said. “We’re in an important time in the history of this country.”