WASHINGTON — New Yorkers Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Steve Israel are on opposite sides in a tight Democratic primary battle engulfed in issues of race and gender and located 200 miles away in Maryland.
In the campaign to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the two top rivals in the April 26 Democratic primary are four-term Rep. Donna Edwards, the first black woman to represent Maryland in Congress, and seven-term Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2008 and 2010.
Local newspapers have likened the battle to the Democratic presidential race, with Edwards as outsider and passionate liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Van Hollen as experienced and can-do Hillary Clinton.
Stories also have reported on the contrast of race and privilege: Edwards, a black single mom, and Van Hollen, a white Washington insider and the son of diplomats (he was born in Pakistan).
A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll on Tuesday showed Edwards leading Van Hollen 44 percent to 40 percent, with likely black voters favoring Edwards three to one and likely white voters backing Van Hollen by two to one.
In Edwards’ corner is Gillibrand, who over the past year has sent 28 fundraising emails through Off the Sidelines, her leadership PAC for women. Another major backer of Edwards is Emily’s List, whose Women Vote! PAC has spent $2.4 million on ads for her.
A statement from a Gillibrand spokesman indicated her support was all about gender.
“Kirsten has travelled all across the country and New York State galvanizing men and women around her mission of supporting great women candidates. Donna’s life experience will inform her policy agenda and make the debate on the Senate floor better. I have no doubt that she will be a real fighter for middle class families and serve as another important female voice in the Senate,” the statement said.
Supporting Van Hollen is Israel, who donated $5,000 to Van Hollen through his leadership PAC, New York Jobs. The National Association of Realtors Congressional Fund has spent nearly $1 million on ads for Van Hollen.
Israel isn’t the only New Yorker to donate to Van Hollen. So have Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-Rochester), Rep. Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh), former Rep. Tim Bishop of Southampton and failed ambassadorial nominee George Tsunis of Lake Success.
In a statement, an Israel aide stressed Van Hollen’s focus on the middle class as a reason for his support.
“Rep. Van Hollen is an effective leader fighting for hardworking families. They have worked closely on a number of issues including a critical campaign finance reform bill, the DISCLOSE Act. Rep. Israel has the utmost respect for Mr. Van Hollen and knows he will continue to be a champion for the middle class in the U.S. Senate,” said Israel spokesman Joe Knickrehm.
Israel, who is retiring at the end of this year, succeeded Van Hollen as DCCC chairman for the 2012 and 2014 elections. In 2009, Israel considered challenging Gillibrand for her Senate seat, but was talked out of it by President Barack Obama.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in line to be Senate Democrats’ leader next year, doesn’t plan to endorse either candidate, his spokesman Matt House said in an email.