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Tight Maryland Senate race echoes dynamics of Democratic presidential fight

Voters will go to the polls in five East Coast state primaries on Tuesday. But in Maryland, it’s the Democratic primary race between Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Donna Edwards to replace longtime Sen. Barbara Mikulski that’s dominating the headlines -- and exposing some of the same establishment-outsider divisions playing out on the national stage. John Yang reports.

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    Tomorrow, voters will go to the polls in five East Coast states to choose their party's nominee to be the next president.

    But, in Maryland, it's the Democratic primary race to replace longtime U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski that is dominating the headlines, and exposing some of the same divisions playing out in the national Democratic contest for president.

    John Yang has our report.


    At a rally for striking Verizon workers, two candidates for the Maryland Democratic Senate nomination appealed to a key constituency: organized labor.

    Donna Edwards was elected to Congress the same year Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president.

    REP. DONNA EDWARDS (D), Maryland: I think it is time for Verizon exclusives to set aside their $1.8 billion a month. I can't even conceive that.


    She's running as a fresh face challenging the establishment.

    Chris Van Hollen is a seven-term member of Congress from a wealthy Washington suburb, a member of his party's leadership in the House.

  • REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN, Maryland:

    Who do you think is responsible for generating all those profits? You are responsible.


    The two are locked in an unexpectedly close race. Analysts say it mirrors tensions in the presidential contest between mainstream Democrats backing Hillary Clinton and supporters of Bernie Sanders, who feel left out of the political process.

    Whoever wins the Democratic primary will be the overwhelming favorite in the fall to succeed Barbara Mikulski, the longest-serving female senator. In Maryland, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1.

    Van Hollen believes he's the natural heir to Mikulski's legacy, a rising star in the party, a protege of Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi who helped push Obamacare through Congress.


    My argument is that there is a big difference between simply voting a certain way on issues and actually doing the hard work to get results. I have always recognized that, when you have divided government, you fight hard and to the finish to protect things that should never be touched, like a woman's right to choose, but you also look for common ground to try to make sure that the country can move forward, if not 100 yards at a time, five, 10 yards at a time.


    Edwards says she would bring a unique and much-needed voice as only the second African-American woman ever to serve in the Senate.


    I don't hide the fact that I'm an African-American woman. I raised my son mostly on my own when I was growing up. And it gives me a perspective about issues that impact working people and working families that is distinct from any that is present in the United States Senate right now.


    Powerful interests don't want Democrat Donna Edwards.


    National progressive groups have stepped in with television ads supporting Edwards to counter Van Hollen's fund-raising edge.


    I have worked with the Progressive Caucus. I have supported progressive budgets, none of which my opponent has done. And so I don't think it's a great surprise. Long before I came into Congress, I was a progressive, and long after I leave, I will be.


    Van Hollen has responded by emphasizing his own progressive roots.


    We have got the Maryland progressives because, in Maryland, progressives are actually interested in getting results. They're not interested in sound bites. They're not interested in rhetoric. They're interested in results. They're interested in seeing measurable progress. And I'm proud to have a record of doing that.


    The choice between two candidates who are otherwise so similar on policy issues and voting records has torn many Maryland Democrats.

  • WOMAN:

    I like both of them. I like where they both stand.


    Toni Price is a striking Verizon worker.

  • WOMAN:

    Donna Edwards, I have talked to her a number of times, and we have a lot in common. I think they both can get the job done, but I am leaning more toward Edwards.


    Leepo Yu is a Van Hollen volunteer.

  • LEEPO YU, Van Hollen Volunteer:

    I would like to see a female senator, but, on the other hand, we have the issues, the pros and cons. And I think Van Hollen will be ready day one.


    The state's largest city has emerged as the key battleground. Polls show both candidates handily winning their home districts in the Washington suburbs. The race could be decided here in Baltimore, played out against the backdrop of the death last year of Freddie Gray, fatally injured while in police custody.

    Voters will go the polls one year to the week after the demonstrations against police turned violent.

    Reverend Jamal Bryant, a Baltimore community leader, delivered Gray's eulogy. We spoke with him on the anniversary of Gray's death.

  • REV. JAMAL BRYANT, Empowerment Temple Church:

    I think that America is in a place of change. People are looking for someone different, somebody who is not afraid to challenge the system, who is not part of the old boy network.


    What happened a year ago, a year ago today, does that make it more urgent, more necessary for representation by someone like Donna Edwards?


    I think it's a reminder of what's left undone, that given our current crisis, a Band-Aid doesn't take the place of open heart surgery. I just think that America, and, all the more, Baltimore is looking for a new voice and a new face.

  • YVETTE LEWIS, Former Chair, Maryland Democratic Party:

    We cannot sit back and say this is it.


    Making history with a new voice and a new face doesn't motivate former Maryland Democratic Party Chair Yvette Lewis, an African-American voter backing Van Hollen.


    I think that votes are too important to be reduced to a demographic, whether it's race or gender. I think votes need to be given to those people who have earned it and who have shown that they will deliver the results for their constituents. I don't think you necessarily need to look like me in order to do what's best for me.


    A big challenge for Van Hollen is convincing black voters that he can represent them effectively.


    Regardless of race, regardless of background, ethnicity, or gender, people want somebody who is going to be able to deliver results on issues that matter to their community.


    Whoever wins on Tuesday, the dynamics of this race have already reshaped the debate within the Democratic Party, broadening the issues being discussed and the people discussing them.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Baltimore.

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