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.