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Big money dominates in Maryland’s 4th District

Israel-focused groups spend $5.5 million, and counting, but Democratic primary ads not focused on Mideast

Former Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards, seen here during a 2016 debate while she was running for Senate, is vying for a comeback in Maryland's 4th District.
Former Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards, seen here during a 2016 debate while she was running for Senate, is vying for a comeback in Maryland's 4th District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former Rep. Donna Edwards wants her old job back. 

Big money groups are investing millions to stop her, though, and to buoy the campaign of her most formidable opponent in next week’s Democratic primary for an open seat in Maryland: Glenn Ivey, a former Hill staffer turned lobbyist and Justice Department official.

Edwards and Ivey find themselves in a bruising race in the 4th District, a suburban expanse that abuts Washington, D.C., and even offers views of the U.S. Capitol. Outside interests — led by the United Democracy Project, a super PAC whose biggest donor is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — have poured more than $5.5 million into the primary, dwarfing the candidates’ own hauls. 

And more money is on the way. 

The stakes are big. The candidate who wins the primary in this deep-blue Prince George’s County seat is all but guaranteed to serve in the 118th Congress. The race encapsulates many of the themes of other Democratic primaries across the country, including the influence of pro-Israel groups and internal divisions, especially as some of the most prominent congressional progressives have sought to shift the party leftward on Middle East policy.  

Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports Edwards, while her deputy, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, has spoken on Ivey’s behalf. Hoyer’s words, calling Ivey a “proven leader who gets results,” are splashed on his campaign literature. 

The seat is open because Rep. Anthony G. Brown, who won it after Edwards launched an unsuccessful bid for Senate in 2016, is running for state attorney general. 

Even though most of the outside money in the 4th District has come from Israel-focused groups, the ads don’t feature the Middle East and instead have highlighted the candidates’ support for efforts to lower consumer costs, to protect abortion rights and to address crime. One attack ad against Ivey, a former State’s Attorney for Prince George’s County, notes his background as a lobbyist and his contributions decades ago to a law firm political action committee whose donations went to Republicans. Nearly all company PACs donate to both parties.  

Edwards, in a recent interview, said the outside spending had been a distraction to her campaign, and she added that she didn’t think it would be a real contest without the heavy spending against her. She said the issue of support for Israel has been “nonexistent” on the campaign trail, and she said she was concerned that some of the pro-Israel groups have targeted “women of color” in other races, including spending against Pennsylvania’s Summer Lee, who won a primary in Pennsylvania’s 12th District, and Jessica Cisneros, who lost a primary to Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas. 

The pro-Israel groups have also invested on behalf of Black women candidates, including for Ohio Democratic Rep. Shontel Brown. She beat Nina Turner, who is also Black, in a primary in the 11th District. 

The liberal group J Street, which says it advocates for peace in the region from a negotiated resolution agreed to by Israelis and Palestinians, has been running ads for Edwards and against Ivey. 

Mega money

United Democracy Project, the super PAC whose biggest funders include AIPAC and well-known donors such as billionaire Paul Singer, has been by far the biggest spender in the 4th District race, disclosing more than $4.2 million, including on ads that highlight criticism of Edwards’ constituent services during her decade in the House. 

Ivey said that the J Street-funded ads attacking him for his long-ago donations to a company PAC were “obviously misleading,” as they sought to tie him to Republicans such as former Vice President Mike Pence. By contrast, Ivey said, the ads that aimed to boost his candidacy were not only accurate but “go directly to the issue that the voters need to decide, who’s best able to do the job. She’s had it before, and I think it’s clear that she didn’t do a good job when she had it.”  

For her part, Edwards said she took constituent services seriously during her Capitol Hill career, which began after she ousted Rep. Albert Wynn in a 2008 primary. Still, she has acknowledged the criticism: “I can say I will do better and mean it, and I do.” 

She stressed that she has a “broad base of support,” locally and nationally, including from the state AFL-CIO, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. 

Ivey has raised the most money, hauling in $1.1 million, including donations from AIPAC and the National Association of Realtors, plus $150,000 in candidate loans, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures as of June 29. Edwards had hauled in nearly $1 million, and her donors included the campaigns of Pelosi, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, a teachers union, the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC and the Jane Fonda Climate PAC. 

Nine candidates are officially on the ballot for the Democratic primary, but no one else had raised more than $200,000 and none had attracted any outside spending, according to FEC disclosures. 

Messages that move voters

Despite the heavy influence of Israel-focused groups in the outside spending, it’s not really a messaging matter on the trail. 

Mark Mellman, chairman of the pro-Israel DMFI PAC, which is running an ad in support of Ivey, said Edwards was one of a small group of members of Congress who did not vote in support of Israel during her time in office. DMFI, which stands for Democratic Majority for Israel, cited several votes, including three House resolutions in which Edwards voted present between 2009 and 2012 on such matters as recognizing Israel’s “right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza” and legislation to enhance security cooperation between the United States and Israel. 

“She has not repudiated her past record in any way, so we assume she’ll have the same positions now that she had then,” he said.  

Mellman noted that his group is running positive ads to boost Ivey and said the ads didn’t focus on Middle East matters because super PACs “communicate the messages that will be the most effective at getting the most votes.” 

He said that, from his group’s polling, 4th District Democratic voters hold strong pro-Israel views, “but knowing about Glenn Ivey’s work on sexual violence and criminal justice reform is more important to more people at this moment than his record on other issues that may be more central to us.”

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