WASHINGTON -- On Tuesday night, Maryland was once again offered the chance to back an African American seeking statewide office, and once again said no. Even with record turnout among African-American voters, Rep. Donna Edwards lost her primary fight with Rep. Chris Van Hollen for Senate. Because of the state's strong Democratic lean, Van Hollen’s primary win all but assures that he will replace Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring.
The results weren’t even that close. Unofficial tallies show Edwards losing to Van Hollen by more than 10 percent. But considering Maryland's demographics -- African Americans make up roughly 30 percent of the population and made up 28 percent of the vote in 2012 -- a better result for Edwards might have been expected. She herself talked up the need to have a congressional delegation that better reflected the state's population during the campaign.
"What I’m surprised about is that there are Democrats who are calling into question whether we should have the most diverse and inclusionary representation in the United Senate, and I thought that was a no-brainer for Democrats," Edwards recently told The Daily Beast.
During her concession speech in Lanham, Maryland, she offered another plea for voters to think about the slate of politicians they send to D.C.
"To my Democratic Party, let me say today Maryland is on the verge of having an all-male delegation in a so-called progressive state," Edwards said, according to the Baltimore Sun. "When will the voices of people of color; when will the voices of women; when will the voice of labor; when will the voices of black women; when will our voices be effective, legitimate, equal leaders in a big-tent party?"
Maryland had been grappling with these questions long before Edwards' failed bid. Anthony Brown, the former lieutenant governor of the state, probably wondered the same thing after losing his 2014 campaign for governor. Instead of electing an African-American Democrat, Marylanders chose Larry Hogan, a white Republican, to the shock of just about every political consultant. (Brown may felt a bit of redemption on Tuesday when he won a primary to replace Edwards in the House).
And before Brown, there was Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, whose campaign for the Senate in 2006 featured not one but two instances of the state going with a white candidate over an African-American one.
That year, Steele easily took the Republican primary with the backing of President George W. Bush, robust fundraising and the underlying promise that his election would diversify the GOP. On the Democratic side, however, there was a bitter battle between Rep. Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume, the former head of the NAACP.
Mfume and Steele would talk about their mutual desire to face each other in the general. “The goal for our respective campaigns is for both of us to win -- to be in the general because that way we knew there would be an African American going to the United States Senate,” Steele recalled in an interview on our Candidate Confessional podcast. But Mfume went on to lose. And in the general, Steele did as well.
Steele knew his odds weren’t great. He had done some clever polling, in which he asked people if they thought their neighbors would be comfortable voting for an African-American candidate -- the idea being that no one would admit it would be an issue for them, but they might be candid about others on the block -- and found that he faced hurdles.
In addition to the polling, he had first-hand experience with racism in politics. Democratic opponents had once labeled him an “Uncle Tom.” After he lost the 2006 race and took over as chairman of the Republican National Committee, an official within his own party wanted him to, well, sound less black.
“The [Republican] party’s never taken the time to actually groom blacks to be political operatives, to be campaign managers, political directors, communication directors, finance directors,” Steele said. “So when I have to go as a candidate into a statewide campaign, or even if I’m running for local sheriff, what pool of talent am I gonna pull from? I’m gonna pull from the established talent that has been developed by the white infrastructure, which is largely white males.”