I’ve been more than a little bit critical of the national media’s coverage of the Maryland campaigns over the past year. From the caricaturing of Montgomery County as a “rich, tony” place full of nothing but white people to the more recent trope that the Senate primary was a racial civil war, the national coverage has been nothing short of terrible.
For an example of how bad, read Joan Walsh’s Nation article. It’s almost embarrassingly inaccurate, it ignores the data, and it assumes the worst about the motivations of pretty much everyone. If you want a more detailed critique, read David Lublin’s takedown, with which I agree.
Given the terrible history of outsiders writing on Maryland, I wasn’t expecting to find anything very good. So I was pleasantly surprised to see this excellent analysis by Jamelle Bouie (one of my favorite national writers) at Slate, of all places. She desensationalized the race in favor of facts and real evidence and, I think, got the story right. Here’s a taste, but I really urge you to read the whole thing.
You can read the Democratic presidential primary as an ideological struggle, but that’s the wrong frame for the Maryland Senate contest. This fight between two able public servants was more about ordinary representation—in all of its forms—than a vision for the state or the country.
For Edwards, that meant touting her identity and making it a part of her campaign. “I think it’s appropriate to talk about our elective bodies, our boardrooms, our workplaces, being places where every one of us, no matter who we are or where we grew up, can find a place,” she told MSNBC in an interview. “If we could have gotten this right over the course of 240 years, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Clearly this strategy of just letting it go and letting elections take their course has not been one that’s resulted in women gaining seats in the House or the Senate.”
It’s a serious perspective. Symbolic representation matters, and that’s especially true for incredibly underrepresented groups such as black women. And the only way to build a presence of those groups is to work for it. It’s why Edwards won early support from Emily’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women, as well as the National Organization for Women.
Van Hollen ran on representation as well, but in the more quotidian sense. He touted his 25 years in Washington and deep ties to the party establishment, as well as his ability to bring benefits and services to a state that is unusually dependent on the federal government for economic progress. And he criticized Edwards for her inattention to the same sort of constituent service. One of his strongest endorsements, from Maryland Democrat Heather Mizeur (who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014), made this point. “Job No. 1 in politics isn’t about passing the most bills, appearing on the local TV stations, carving out and advancing an ideology, or even voting the right way (though all of these things matter),” she wrote for the Baltimore Sun. “No, the most important job is first taking care of the people. … By showing a sincere regard for the people he serves, Chris Van Hollen is the only one in this race ready to step into them.”
Again, this makes sense. There are tangible benefits to having a long-serving lawmaker in office as senator, especially one in party leadership. This is especially true given the shape of Maryland’s politics at the moment, where the Republican governor has taken an antagonistic approach to Baltimore city and other urbanized, Democratic parts of the state. Sen. Van Hollen might be a much-needed counterweight to a somewhat hostile Annapolis.