How Race and Gender Shaped the Senate Race in Maryland

The matchup between Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen is a case study in the way Democratic politics are shifting on issues of identity.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Race and gender are front and center in the Maryland U.S. Senate primary race between Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards. Van Hollen, a white man, and Edwards, a black woman, are both Democratic members of Congress from Maryland competing to replace the state’s retiring senator, Barbara Mikulski. The seat is considered safely Democratic, and whoever emerges victorious in the April 26th primary is expected to prevail in the November general election.  In the closing days of the race, however, debates over identity have proven divisive.

Democrats have long marketed themselves as responsive to the concerns of the marginalized, including black and women voters. But the standard-bearers of the Democratic Party are increasingly emphasizing race and gender in campaigns and policies. Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have made overt appeals to different demographic groups and grounded varying aspects of their agendas on the idea that different forms of inequality linked to identity can overlap and compound one another.

The Maryland matchup has proven competitive, though Van Hollen has pulled ahead in recent polls. No matter who wins, the contest has exposed a rift among Democrats over the relative importance of identity and the extent to which it should be emphasized in politics. As highly visible Democrats increasingly devote attention to topics like race and gender, that rift may grow wider. It could also create potential political peril for any candidate who struggles to articulate how his own identity fits into the party’s broader political vision.

Van Hollen and his supporters have worked hard to cast the congressman as a politician with a track record of getting results. Edwards has insisted that she too has a well-established history of delivering for constituents, but has also made race and gender a central part of her pitch. “There are only 20 women in the Senate. There are no black women,” she said at a recent event in Baltimore, according to MSNBC. “What I would add to the U.S. Senate is a different kind of life experience and that would inform how I feel about public policy.” If elected, Edwards would become the second black woman ever to join the Senate.

To hear Edwards tell it, the personal is political, and her identity as a black woman and single mother has shaped who she is as a candidate and what she has done in office. “I’m dumbfounded by Democrats who don’t see the value of race and gender as part of a mix of who we are on public and private lives,” Edwards told BuzzFeed recently.

As the Edwards campaign has highlighted her race and gender, the Van Hollen campaign's message, amplified by supporters, has been that voters should focus on track record and political vision above all else. “Diversity is important,” Rushern Baker III, the county executive for Prince George’s County in Maryland and a Van Hollen supporter, said earlier this month, according to The Washington Post. “But what’s more important is [electing] people [who] get things done.” A statement from Van Hollen supporters identified as “Maryland Civil Rights leaders” circulated by the campaign in early April read: “Chris forges deep and lasting relations with a diverse range of people and organizations, represents their interests, and secures the critical resources that move Maryland forward. It is not about race, gender, creed or color—it is about a person. And that person is Chris Van Hollen.”

“There are only 20 women in the Senate. There are no black women.”

Democrats and Republicans both benefit by appealing to voters’ identities. Look no further than Donald Trump’s resonance with white, working-class voters. Still, the term “identity politics” is frequently used as a pejorative by conservatives who accuse liberals of provoking division on issues of race and gender for political gain. The Maryland primary race is a reminder that those on the left hardly agree unanimously that markers of identity such as “race, gender, creed or color” should be foregrounded in politics, or at least not by candidates themselves.

Earlier this month, Politico reported that one Van Hollen supporter, Baltimore City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young, a Democrat, “called Edwards’ emphasis on ‘identity politics’ misplaced. ‘I don’t think skin color should matter when you’re looking at who can get things done,’” Young commented. In turn, Edwards has suggested that her opponents have used arguments typically deployed by conservatives. “It’s sad to have Democrats using terms like ‘identity politics,’” Edwards told BuzzFeed, adding, “Those are not our words. Those are the words of the right.”

Van Hollen’s supporters, meanwhile, have made the case that while he may be a white man, he can still be the better candidate on such issues as access to abortion. In a letter published in The Baltimore Sun, more than 1,000 women identified as “staunch Democrats and feminists” wrote that they share the mission of EMILY’s List “to elect pro-choice women to office.” But while the fundraising organization is backing Edwards, these women wrote that they support Van Hollen because they are “united by our shared commitment to electing the most outstanding candidates to political office—candidates who have a successful track record of effecting change on the many issues that matter to us.” The letter goes on to list off legislative achievements by the congressman such as his “100 percent ratings from Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro Choice America, and the American Association of University Women.”

Maryland voters will soon decide which candidate they prefer. If the Democratic Party shifts toward an increasing emphasis on race, gender and other markers of identity, candidates will likely feel more pressure to articulate the ways in which identity shapes their own approach to politics. That may be comparatively easier to achieve for candidates like Edwards than for candidates like Van Hollen. He may win this race, but there’s peril ahead for Democrats who can’t communicate sophisticated views on identity.