By Vicky Needham and Jonathan Easley 4/22/15

Rep. Donna Edwards (Md.) is using trade as a wedge issue in her Democratic Senate primary fight with fellow Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.).

Edwards is pouncing on her rival’s trade record, arguing Van Hollen’s opposition to a bill that would fast-track President Obama’s trade agreements masks a record of support for global trade deals.

The liberal Democrat argued Van Hollen’s opposition to fast-track authority is a reversal meant to win over working-class voters, and that her record on the issue has been more consistent.

“Well, you know that you can’t just run for the United States Senate and then try to get right with the American worker,” Edwards told The Hill after speaking at an anti-fast-track rally on Capitol Hill.

“I’ve stood with workers all the time I’ve been in Congress,” she said. “If you look at Mr. Van Hollen’s record, the record is clear, he’s voted for nine of these trade agreements.”

Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, voted in 2011 for trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama. Edwards joined a majority of House Democrats in opposing the deals, which were backed by the Obama administration.

In response to Edwards’s jabs, Van Hollen pointed to a statement issued by his campaign.

“Congressman Van Hollen has always stood up for Maryland workers, and has always enjoyed their support in his campaigns and on his legislative priorities,” the statement said.

The dustup highlights the narrow ideological differences between the two Democrats and indicates they’ll be looking to exploit any policy contrasts in what’s lining up to be a contentious primary battle.

“She’s trying to find an angle to excite her base,” said Andrew Feldman, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state who isn’t currently affiliated with any candidates. 

“She is exploiting a true difference between herself and Van Hollen, who has voted for numerous trade deals,” he said. 

The trade battle could be a compelling issue for Edwards, given mounting attention to the fight over fast-track legislation, which would prevent Congress from amending a trade pact the Obama administration is negotiating with 11 Latin American and Asian countries.

Without fast-track, it will be hard for the White House to even complete the negotiations.

Van Hollen’s record includes votes for and against trade deals.

He opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005 and a separate deal with Oman in 2006.

In addition to supporting the trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, Van Hollen voted for pacts with Chile, Singapore, Morocco, Australia and Peru, as the Edwards campaign noted.

Van Hollen was one of relatively few House Democrats who voted for the Colombia deal, which was vehemently opposed by labor unions. Thirty-one Democrats backed the deal, including Van Hollen and Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.).

Edwards said Van Hollen is only opposing fast-track now because he is being challenged in the primary for retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s seat.

“Since 2011, at least, we have been organizing against fast-track, and Mr. Van Hollen hasn’t been on any one of those letters the entire time, and then yesterday, he decides that he’s against fast-track,” Edwards said.

“You cannot just be a Johnny-come-lately on trade and think that you can convince the American worker that you’ve been on their side all along,” said Edwards, who has landed early endorsements from two leading progressive groups, Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Van Hollen has signed on to several letters expressing concerns about trade agreements.

Last summer, he co-signed a letter with Edwards to President Obama over concerns that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would limit Buy American policies and hurt U.S. workers.

Both Edwards and Van Hollen are fighting for the support of organized labor, and Van Hollen’s campaign took issue with his rival’s suggestions that she is a stronger protector of working-class voters.

His campaign noted that he received an endorsement this week from Maryland’s International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the first endorsement from a labor union in the race.

His lifetime score of 95 percent from the AFL-CIO is only slightly lower than Edwards’s 98 percent score.

The AFL-CIO has put a freeze on political contributions until the trade vote.

Edwards needs strong support from the left to defeat her House colleague.

Van Hollen has a considerable advantage in the early money race, taking in $1.1 million in the first quarter, compared with only $335,000 for Edwards. Van Hollen, a former chief of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, has also lined up support from much of the state’s Democratic establishment.

“She doesn’t have to match Van Hollen dollar for dollar, but she has to figure out a way to excite this base, so she’s trying to be that Elizabeth Warren-style liberal firebrand,” a Democratic strategist said.

Van Hollen has signaled he doesn’t intend to cede the progressive mantle to Edwards.

Besides opposing fast-track, he’s highlighted endorsements from such progressive luminaries as Robert Reich.