Tuesday’s Undercard Winners

by John Lawrence

Tuesday’s Amtrak corridor primaries seem to spell the end of the line for Sen. Bernie Sanders and the also-rans ineffectively challenging the implausible Donald Trump. It is possible that the match-up in the fall will not be Clinton v. Trump, but don’t bet on it: Clinton will reach her magic number soon, and even if Trump stumbles at securing the 1237 delegates he needs, the Republican establishment will be hard-pressed to deny the nomination to someone who has so dominated the primary season, delivering it instead either to someone he consistently thrashed, or someone who didn’t even bother to run.

There were other races on Tuesday that bear noting. In Maryland’s Democratic Senate primary (the only race that counts in the most reliably Democratic state), two House Members with nearly impeccable liberal voting records squared off against each other: Chris Van Hollen, the long-ranking Democratic chairman and senior member on the Budget Committee, and Donna Edwards, who was seeking to become only the second African-American woman elected to the Club.

For most of the winter and spring, the race seemed too close to call. Van Hollen’s strength in the sprawling Montgomery County was offset by Edwards’ grip on her Prince George’s County district: the battle would be fought out in Baltimore.   Although the presidential contest brought out large numbers of minority voters, Van Hollen easily defeated Edwards, taking about one-third of the black vote. Many observers faulted Edwards for what seemed shrill and blatantly false accusations that Van Hollen was sympathetic to the National Rifle Association and slashing Social Security benefits. When Edwards ran an image of a weeping President Obama to illustrate her support for tougher gun restrictions than Van Hollen, she earned a rare rebuke from the White House. Over the last two weeks of the campaign, polling detected a decided erosion of support for Edwards, largely because of her controversial campaign tactics.

But another shortcoming of the Edwards campaign was her thin resume of legislative achievements. Although Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (who remained neutral in the race) appointed Edwards to lead an effort on economic policy, the congresswoman had little experience with policymaking at the upper echelons of Congress. By contrast, Van Hollen was a skilled legislator, entrusted with leading Democrats on the Budget Committee for years, heading up negotiations with congressional Republicans and the White House. Most observers saw in Pelosi’s persistent promotion of Van Hollen – on Budget, fiscal commissions, and White House negotiations, as well as the chairmanship of the Democratic campaign committee – as evidence of her confidence in his political and policy skills.

Edwards tried to appropriate the Sanders “inside/outside” message, simultaneously asserting she was well-connected and experienced, while also claiming to be a community activist free from taint as a professional politician, but it didn’t work, and her fact-challenged attacks seem to have backfired.

Van Hollen becomes not only a certain senator, but nearly as likely a future presidential candidate in 2020 or 2024, depending on how things go for Mrs. Clinton in November. As I noted in DOMEocracy a year ago, “Van Hollen’s easy manner and upbeat style camouflages a skilled and effective politician. [He has] enjoyed the confidence of Members as a thoughtful and savvy technician who also knew how to play the political and media games expertly.” While already 57, Van Hollen will be at the edge of a suitable age for a presidential run in 2024, but still younger than Clinton, Trump or Sanders this year. Given the thinness of the current Democratic bench, he will be carefully watched throughout his Senate career for signs of White House ambition.

Two other races are of interest. In the contest for the Democratic nomination in Van Hollen’s 8th congressional seat, the early favorite was Kathleen Matthews, a longtime television reporter and Marriott executive who is also the spouse of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Matthews is smart, personable, well-connected and the only major female contender in the primary. Her main competitor was thought to be state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a law professor with an impressive set of progressive legislative accomplishments in Annapolis.   A surprise entrant was a self-funding multi-millionaire, David Trone, who spent an obscene $12 million of his own money – five times Matthews and Raskin’s totals – to promote himself as an outsider candidate.

If Matthews had name recognition and Trone had money, Raskin had something of exceptional value in a House race: on-the-ground organizing skill. The most progressive voice in the race (he led the successful fights to end capital punishment and to permit same sex marriage in Maryland), Raskin’s Senate district covered only about a sixth of the congressional district, but his organizing diligence paid off. While some may compare his leftist politics and grassroots strategy to Bernie Sanders, Raskin’s record suggests he is more of a team player, a valued asset in House politics, and he will be one to watch in the 115th Congress.

In Pennsylvania, the story was bit different, as Katie McGinty, a former staffer to Al Gore and in the administrations of Pennsylvania governors Tom Wolf and Ed Rendell. A vigorous environmentalist, McGinty was the establishment candidate for the Democratic Senate nomination, strongly backed by President Obama (who called her “a true champion for working families”), Vice President Biden and other party elders against former Rep. Joe Sestak, who had lost a race for the seat six years ago. Sestak had been an irritant during his brief four year House career, often making a point of separating himself from the House leadership and other Democrats. A retired three star admiral, Sestak had defeated incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, who had switched from Republican to Democrat in hopes of retaining his Senate seat in 2010, but narrowly lost the fall election to Pat Toomey.

Unlike Van Hollen and Raskin, McGinty’s route to a seat in Congress will not be secure. She still needs to defeat Toomey, elected in the Tea Party bacchanalia of 2010 but arguably too hard-line a conservative for Pennsylvania, especially in a presidential year when there will be a far larger turnout than when he won in the 2010 off-year vote.

Tuesday’s primaries not only pushed the presidential process towards its likely conclusion (mercifully), but elevated to national visibility three liberal Democrats who hold great promise as the party peers ahead into the post-Obama era.