By Jim Ellis
April 8, 2016 — Democrats have two near-term US Senate primary battles underway and both will be decided on April 26. The Maryland Democratic primary will almost assuredly determine who succeeds retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D). The Pennsylvania contest will identify first-term Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R) general election opponent in what promises to be a hotly contested campaign with national implications.
The polls have seesawed for weeks between representatives Donna Edwards (D-Prince Georges County) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Montgomery County). Just last Friday, Van Hollen released his own Garin Hart Yang Research survey giving the candidate a 45-40 percent advantage, but this is the only recent poll arriving at such a conclusion. Several days earlier, the Baltimore Sun published their data giving Edwards a 34-28 percent lead.
Seeing this, the Washington Post, partnering with the University of Maryland, went into the field with their own poll (March 30-April 3; 539 likely Maryland Democratic primary voters) and also found Edwards ahead. The spread was 44-40 percent among likely Democratic primary voters and 44-35 percent when the entire registered Democratic universe (741) was queried. The conclusions are exactly the opposite of Van Hollen’s findings.
This tells us the campaign, despite Van Hollen’s huge spending advantage, is a pure toss-up with three weeks to go. With the presidential primary in the same election, voter participation will increase over normal Maryland partisan turnout patterns.
Racial demographics are playing a major role as to how the vote breaks. Among white voters, Anglo candidate Van Hollen has a 56-23 percent edge. Polling only blacks, Edwards who herself is African American, holds an even better 66-23 percent margin. Hence, it is unsurprising that the Senate primary contest is a virtual tie.
The Pennsylvania and national Democratic leadership are attacking the April 26 primary like it is a general election. Recruiting every Democratic leader including President Obama, Vice President Biden, Gov. Tom Wolf, former governor and Democratic National Committee chairman Ed Rendell, and Sen. Bob Casey Jr. to all endorse favored candidate Katie McGinty, the party chieftains are bound and determined to deny former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Delaware County) another statewide bid.
Sestak, a former Navy Admiral who served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council before being elected to Congress, held Sen. Pat Toomey to a 51-49 percent victory in the Republican landslide year of 2010. Therefore, considering Sestak’s resume and statewide performance, the leadership’s actions here are rather extraordinary.
Both sides, the state party hierarchy unofficially led by Philadelphia Congressman Bob Brady (D) and the national party organizations’ teams, and Sestak all admit relationships were destroyed over how his 2010 effort was run. Considering that the former congressman and Naval officer came within two points of winning in a consistently poor year for Democrats seems to make no difference in their zeal to nominate McGinty in 2016.
McGinty, a former state Environmental Protection Agency head and gubernatorial chief of staff, is no stellar candidate. She ran for governor in 2014 against Wolf, who would later ask her to lead his staff, but finished last in the Democratic primary attracting only eight percent of the vote.
Adding together McGinty’s early treasury, the party support, and that from outside liberal organizations, the combined spending will total well over $3 million before the primary is completed.
So far it appears the prospective Democratic primary voters haven’t gotten the word, as Sestak has led in all polling including the very latest. Harper Polling (April 2-3; 603 likely Pennsylvania Democratic primary voters via Interactive Voice Response mechanism) finds the ex-congressman still holding a comfortable 41-31-9 percent lead over McGinty and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.
While the Democratic insiders hold a negative opinion of Sestak, the primary rank-and-file voters do not. According to Harper, Sestak maintains a 70:15 percent favorable to unfavorable personal index.