- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 12, 2016

BALTIMORE (AP) - The nasty campaign for the White House is playing out in the race to replace retiring five-term Sen. Barbara Mikulski in Maryland. The two leading candidates are trying to inject their opponent with the “poisonous” air at the top of the ticket.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a seven-term Democrat, is highlighting Del. Kathy Szeliga’s ongoing support for Republican Donald Trump in a state where not even the Republican governor will touch him. Szeliga, who has criticized the billionaire Republican publicly, questions why Van Hollen hasn’t been as quick to speak out against Hillary Clinton’s missteps.

Both are running into serious questions about their party’s presidential nominee.

Van Hollen has the advantage of running in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1. He points out that Gov. Larry Hogan, whose underdog victory in 2014 is cited by Szeliga as a sign Maryland voters want change, distanced himself months ago from Trump, declaring in June he would not vote for him after months of saying he didn’t support his candidacy.

“Unlike governor Hogan, she has endorsed Donald Trump for president of the United States, which I think shows an incredible lack of judgment and would be reckless, and we need to be prepared to put country over party,” Van Hollen said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

While Szeliga is supporting the GOP presidential nominee, she has publicly called him out when she believes he is in the wrong.

“Yes, I’m supporting my nominee but, yes, I also will be an independent voice in the U.S. Senate,” Szeliga said in an interview last week.

For example, in June she criticized Trump’s comments about a Latino judge overseeing a lawsuit involving Trump University. She wrote on her Facebook page that saying anyone’s ethnic background should disqualify them from public service “is, by definition, a racist statement.” On Saturday night, Szeliga’s campaign released a statement saying she was “appalled” by Trump’s comments in a 2005 video in which he is heard bragging about how his fame allowed him to “do anything” to women.

“I raised my sons to never speak about women like this and to defend women against just these kind of comments,” Szeliga said.

A main thrust of her campaign has been to describe Van Hollen as a Washington insider who is incapable of taking a stand to follow through with changes voters want in Washington. Van Hollen rebuts the charge by saying he works across the political aisle to get things done.

Szeliga is working to link her description of her opponent as a creature of Washington with an unwillingness to publicly condemn Clinton’s actions. Szeliga contends Van Hollen has kept quiet about Clinton calling half of Trump’s supporters “deplorables.” She also notes other Clinton failings, such as her use of a private computer server when she was secretary of state.

Mikulski’s retirement after 30 years creates an open seat as Democrats and Republicans battle for control of the Senate. The longest-serving woman in the history of Congress has been a major supporter of Clinton over the years. A recent poll indicated that Hogan’s strong popularity as Maryland’s second Republican governor in 46 years hasn’t carried over into Szeliga’s Senate bid. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll showed Hogan’s approval rating is 71 percent, while Szeliga is running 29 points behind Van Hollen.

Still, questions about Clinton are on voters’ minds, even in heavily Democratic Maryland. While Van Hollen spoke to residents at the Charlestown Retirement Community in the suburbs of Baltimore last week, a resident in the audience asked: “Can Hillary Clinton be trusted to run the country?”

“Yes,” Van Hollen said, before quickly pivoting to Trump.

“Creating her own private email system was a mistake,” Van Hollen said. “She said it was a mistake, but in my view, when you look at the two candidates for president and compare them, the risks in my view of a Donald Trump presidency, you know, far outweigh the concerns that I think have been raised about Hillary Clinton, in which I think she’s tried to address.”

Van Hollen notes that Clinton has apologized for missteps during the campaign, including the comment she made about half of Trump’s supporters being “deplorables.” He also has spoken to concerns voters have with Clinton’s trustworthiness. His main defense: Just look at Trump.

“I think Hillary Clinton has acknowledged that she has a lot of work to do when it comes to gaining the full trust of the American people, and I think she’s going to work hard at it. But you know, (Vice President) Joe Biden always says with respect to elections and candidates: ‘Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative,’” Van Hollen said, causing laughter to ripple through the audience at the retirement community.

Van Hollen also brought up Szeliga’s support for Trump during a debate on WAMU-FM late last week. It prompted an exchange in which both candidates noted the “poisonous” air of the presidential campaign.

“Let’s just talk about the fact that you are out there supporting somebody who has been dividing the country, saying poisonous things,” Van Hollen said.

Szeliga fired back: “How about ‘basket of deplorables?’ That was pretty poisonous.”

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