The nation will be watching tonight to see if Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump can win big in five states holding primary votes. But the pro-Israel community will be keeping a special eye on one toss-up U.S. Senate primary in the state of Maryland.
Vying to fill the seat being vacated by Senator Barbara Mikulski, two members of Congress, Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards are in a neck-and-neck battle to win the Democratic primary. Both lean to the liberal side of the Democratic spectrum, but Van Hollen is running as the party establishment favorite while Edwards enjoys support of the Maryland African-American community.
They also represent different approaches toward Israel, with Van Hollen viewed as a much more traditional pro-Israel candidate. The split has turned the Maryland senate race into an interesting test case for pro-Israel politics and a proxy battle between the mainstream lobby and those challenging it from the left.
The tight contest is also particularly important because the winner is considered likely to win the seat in November as Democrats have held both Senate seats from Maryland for three decades.
In his 13 years in Congress, Van Hollen was viewed as a “safe vote” for the pro-Israel lobby except for a brief departure from the AIPAC-supported in line when he called for a ceasefire during Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon. With Jews making up more than 10% of the population in his congressional district, Van Hollen won his re-election bids handedly and maintained strong ties with local and national Jewish organizations. In his current primary campaign, Van Hollen got a $100,000 boost from Haim Saban, the Hollywood Democratic mega-donor who had described himself in the past as a “single issue guy, and my issue is Israel.”
Edwards’ relationship with the pro-Israel community has been rocky. Shortly after elected in 2008 for her first full term, Edwards took a critical stance toward Israel following a trip she made to Israel and the Gaza Strip. As her re-election campaign moved ahead, Edwards encountered pushback from Maryland Jewish activists and donors, which was countered by an emergency funding drive sponsored by J Street PAC, the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby’s fundraising arm.
Since, she demonstrated a voting record closer to that of Bernie Sanders than of AIPAC. Edwards refused to join a 2009 House resolution expressing support for Israel in light of rocket attacks from Gaza; she voted against a resolution condemning the Goldstone report on Israel’s actions during the Gaza war, and was among the few not to support one of the Iran sanction measures in 2013. Edwards has stressed in public statements and speeches her support for a two-state solution and her belief in the need for an active American role in brokering such an outcome.
Her strong stance against Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians has placed Edwards among a small group of Democrats actively trying to challenge their party’s approach on Israel.
J Street PAC, stating that both candidates meet their requirements, has not endorsed either Edwards or Van Hollen. Instead, the group expressed its support for both, allowing backers to donate to either candidate through the PAC. Polls have consistently shown a tight race between the two candidates, with Edwards holding the lead in an early stage of the race and Van Hollen now topping her in the latest pre-vote poll.
And with the race that tight, the pro-Israel vote could be a key factor in deciding Maryland’s next senator.
Haim Saban, the pro-Israel megadonor, recently donated $100,000 to a PAC supporting Van Hollen, the Intercept reported.
Maryland hasn’t seen a Republican win a senate seat since the 1980s and polls indicate the state still leans heavily to the Democratic side.
On the Republican side, a crowded field of candidates are battling for the party’s nomination. In 2014, Republican Larry Hogan pulled off a surprise to win the governor’s race, giving some hope for current senate candidates to follow his footsteps.
The race has stood out not only for the high stakes it involved and the millions of dollars poured into it, but also in the harsh tones it reached, uncharacteristic to Maryland politics.’
Edwards has repeatedly accused Van Hollen of being an establishment insider and attacked his record of compromise in Congress.
“Marylanders are tired of career politicians willing to trade away our values just to get a deal or get a headline,” she said of her rival. Van Hollen hit back on Edwards’ record which he described as “a lot of rhetoric but no results, no record.”
But the issue of Israel, while clearly dividing the two candidates, remained on the sidelines of the testy campaign. Edwards even made a point of denouncing supporters of her campaign who circulated a flier at a meeting describing Israel as an apartheid state and accusing Van Hollen of supporting aid to Israel at the expense of the needs of people in his own state.
When asked in debates about Israel, both stated their support for the Jewish state and for a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians.
Contact Nathan Guttman on Twitter @nathanguttman
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman