Josh Kurtz: A First for Chris Van Hollen

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As he plows ahead with his campaign for the Democratic Senate nomination against Rep. Donna Edwards, Rep. Chris Van Hollen finds himself in unchartered territory: For the first time in a competitive race, he’s the favorite of the party establishment.

That certainly wasn’t the case in 2002, when Van Hollen, then a state senator, competed in an epic Democratic congressional primary against then-Del. Mark Shriver (D). While the Democratic intelligentsia and party activists were more or less divided, and both candidates were lining up endorsements from fellow elected officials, the national establishment tilted heavily toward Shriver.

Uncle Ted Kennedy had something to do with that, procuring donations and labor endorsements for Shriver and keeping national environmental groups neutral even though they naturally gravitated toward Van Hollen. Rep. Steny Hoyer, then as now one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, made his preference for Shriver clear, though he stopped short of a formal endorsement.

The idea that Shriver was the favorite was reinforced not just by poll numbers, but by his superior fundraising, and the fact that his campaign was run in part by a couple of guys named David Axelrod and David Plouffe, while Van Hollen’s until late in the primary was being run largely by no-name middle-aged volunteers like the savvy Dorothy Davidson. One of the last polls before that primary showed the race tightening, but even then an overwhelmingly majority of voters believed Shriver was going to win.

Eight years earlier, Van Hollen, then a 35-year-old first-term state delegate, was considered quite the upstart when he decided to take on sitting state Sen. Patty Sher (D), who had put him on her ticket in 1990 and was, to the extent that a woman can be, one of the boys in Annapolis. Van Hollen’s move may not have been popular with insular legislative leaders or ambitious fellow Montgomery County Democrats, but he didn’t care.

When the votes were counted, Van Hollen won by a stunning 3-1 margin, following some unforced errors by Sher. Annapolis insiders had no choice but to shrug and show respect.

So what does it mean now that Van Hollen is clearly the favorite of most party leaders this time?

It is, of course, on the one hand, a measure of the esteem that Van Hollen has earned from powerful Democrats. He has proven to be an accomplished lawmaker over a period of a quarter century, equal to any legislative challenge. Even deep in the minority on Capitol Hill, Van Hollen is effective.

He has also paid his dues: running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for two election cycles, going toe-to-toe with the Troglodytes on the House Budget Committee, and giving up prime territory in his district without public complaint to help Democrats add a seat in Maryland.

On the other hand, the inescapable fact is that Donna Edwards isn’t very popular with many elected officials or regular donors. She may not care – and it probably doesn’t matter much to average voters. Some Democratic leaders are undeniably gravitating to Van Hollen simply because of their antipathy towards Edwards.

Can a politician who has thrived as an insurgent shift gears and succeed as the “overdog”? Not always.

Remember George Allen, the Virginia Republican? He served half a term in Congress after winning a special election, then saw his district eliminated in redistricting. So he ran for governor with a chip on his shoulder and won big. Some years later, he ousted incumbent Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb.

But when it came time to seek a second term to the Senate, Allen, then considered a likely presidential prospect, took his eyes of the immediate prize, make one spectacular gaffe (“Maccacca”) and fell on his face.

Van Hollen, by contrast, is a relentless, strategic and focused campaigner who will not be outworked. He’s got to be enjoying his favorite status, but you can be sure he’s not taking anything for granted.

Yet anyone who counts Donna Edwards out at this still-early stage, nine months before the primary, is making a serious mistake. Yes, she is flopping as a fundraiser so far. Yes, her campaign doesn’t appear to be as efficient as Van Hollen’s. And yes, most elected officials are rooting against her.

But in this age of the super PAC, when a single rich supporter can write one big check, Van Hollen’s huge cash-on-hand advantage as of June 30 – more than $3.7 million in the bank compared to less than $500,000 for Edwards – may not matter all that much. Emily’s List still seems ready to go all-in for Edwards, and that’s significant. The national progressive groups backing Edwards provide a certain amount of energy for her effort.

And who knows what the political dynamic is going to look like a few months from now, nationally and in Maryland? Will another prominent Democrat get into the Senate race (probably not)? Will the Democratic presidential nominating contest be settled by the late April Maryland primary (probably)? What’s happening then on Capitol Hill? What’s happening then in Baltimore city? All these are factors in handicapping the Edwards-Van Hollen primary.

Edwards has thrived politically as an insurgent in the same way Van Hollen has – and now wears the moniker more easily than Van Hollen. She’s energetic, has a kick-ass attitude, and often campaigns as if she has nothing to lose.

As the campaign continues, Edwards will be appealing ever-more-loudly to voters who want to see an African-American woman serving in the Senate. With Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) retiring, with Edwards giving up her House seat to run for Senate, it’s very possible that Maryland will have an all-male congressional delegation come 2017. That will be another Edwards appeal – and many progressive Democratic voters who admire Van Hollen could find themselves guilt-tripped, at the last minute, into voting for his opponent. (An all-male delegation could also have a profound impact on the 2018 Maryland elections.)

So yes, Van Hollen, in contrast to what he’s used to experiencing in earlier campaigns, finds himself the favorite in these early stages. But you wouldn’t want to bet a lot of money on the ultimate outcome right now.

NOTE: This column is going on a brief hiatus. We’ll be back Aug. 18. Thank you, as always, for reading.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.