Since 2006, Democratic party activists and liberal groups such as MoveOn.org and the Blue America PAC have been trying to send a message to Democrats who, while holding seats in safe Democratic states or districts, have been voting with Republicans on key issues, particularly the Iraq War. The Connecticut primary battle royale between Joseph Lieberman and Ned Lamont sucked up most of the media oxygen that year. (Lamont ended up winning the Democratic primary, but Lieberman, running as an Independent, beat him in the general election). But there was also a little-noticed race in Maryland’s fourth congressional district, between Donna Edwards and Representative Al Wynn powered by a similar dynamic. Wynn, then a seven-term incumbent, had logged several Republican-leaning votes in Congress; his support for the Iraq war and votes for the 2005 energy and bankruptcy bills and repeal of the estate tax were red flags to progressives. Edwards, a community organizer and nonprofit lawyer, came within a hair of beating Wynn, but with little money and less public awareness, ultimately fell short.
She never stopped running for his seat, though, and on Tuesday, she prevailed with a resounding 60-36 victory. And in a heavily Democratic district, she’s sure to win in November. Wynn got support from local elected officials, as well as congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emanuel, and Steny Hoyer, while liberal organizations like Emily’s List, the SEIU, the League of Conservation Voters, and ACORN, as well as anti-war blogs like Daily Kos and Open Left sank $1.2 million into Edwards's campaign. Wynn decried the outside efforts as a "vast ... left-wing conspiracy," but the more important variable turned out to be the coattails of the Obama-Clinton race.
Obama didn't endorse, but both Edwards and Wynn endorsed him, and each sought to claim his mantle of change during the campaign. The presidential primary helped drive a more than 40 percent increase in voter turnout over 2006, and allowed the insurgent Edwards to close the gap among black voters, principally in Prince George’s county, while maintaining her support in Montgomery County, the mixed-race, more affluent part of the district that Obama also carried Tuesday. In fact, the raw number of votes for Wynn roughly matched his support in 2006--meaning nearly all of the new participants flocked to Edwards, flipping her 50-46 loss to Wynn that year into a crushing victory this cycle.
I spoke with Edwards the morning after her win.
TNR: First of all, congratulations.
Edwards: Thank you.
How do you think yesterday’s high turnout factored into your victory? Do you think that the contested presidential race was helpful to you in particular? Was Obama an additional help?
Well, I certainly know our turnout was high, and from the time we started this campaign last spring we predicted for it. We factored all of our plans on a higher turnout and that was activated long before the wave of the presidential campaign swept forward. I supported Senator Obama and I think he’ll make a fine president of the United States.
Besides the turnout, was there a particular impact Obama had in your district?
One thing is clear: there was a lot of synergy between the message that Senator Obama has taken across America and the one that I’ve brought to this district. But we were really just building on the momentum that came from a very close race in 2006. We got our message of change across, and I think we just added to our base.
What about your opponent? Many have suggested that he is a corrupted Washington insider—one of my colleagues compared him to State Senator Clay Davis from The Wire. Obama has talked a lot about ethics in Washington. Is this political moment the perfect storm for a challenger like yourself?
It’s more critical than that. Back in 2006 we talked about the congressman’s record being out of step with our district. We were represented by someone that supported the Iraq war, which, I agree with Obama, was an unwise decision.
But more importantly, it takes away our focus. We need to have an education system that works for all the children in our district, no matter who they are or where they’re from. We need to have an energy policy that works for people. People are paying record prices at the pump and for home heating. We don’t have a health care system that works for us. You are underinsured and paying high premiums and co-payments and can’t get by. I think that those messages resonated and continued to resonate from 2006 as we built a coalition.
So do you believe in Obama’s coattails? You’re from a very liberal district--do you think there is an advantage to having him upticket in other places across the country?
As I said, I believe in Senator Barack Obama’s ability to lead the country. I’m going to be happy with whoever the Democratic nominee is. But it's Democrats like me in the Congress who can make our Democratic president even stronger, and I look forward to giving him that support in Congress.
Dayo Olopade is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.