One of these Dem stars is about to suffer a crushing defeat

BALTIMORE — Democratic voters in Maryland head to the polls on Tuesday to decide the fate of two of the party’s most promising stars.

Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards are vying to replace outgoing Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Robert Mueller's forgotten surveillance crime spree Clinton: White House slow-walking Russia sanctions MORE in the Free State, and the stakes are enormous.

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One lawmaker will see a fruitful congressional career come to a screeching halt with a primary loss and be left to face an uncertain political future. The other will be a big favorite to win a November promotion and become a fixture in the upper chamber, where Maryland hasn’t been represented by a Republican in three decades.

The race has intensified over the last several weeks, and Monday was no exception, with the Edwards campaign calling Van Hollen “a business-as-usual Washington insider.”

The candidates, who are both 57, spent Monday on a final whirlwind campaigning blitz that brought them to schools, diners, senior centers, bustling Metro stations and sleepy neighborhood streets for a last-minute door-knocking effort.

“You’ve got to run hard across the finish line,” Van Hollen told The Hill after meeting voters at the Harford Senior Center.

The race has been much closer than initially expected. Van Hollen is the more prominent figure, with a longer congressional resume; he’s a budget gladiator and de facto leader who has close ties to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); and he boasts a big cash advantage, outraising Edwards by almost $5 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

But Edwards has been a force in her own right. She was tapped by Pelosi to co-chair the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee; she’s won endorsements from powerful groups like EMILY’s List that have spent heavily to promote her campaign; and in an election year that might send the first woman to the White House in the form of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: Trump's exclusive interview with Hill.TV | Trump, intel officials clash over Russia docs | EU investigating Amazon | Military gets new cyber authority | Flynn sentencing sparks new questions about Mueller probe READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV Keeping up with Michael Avenatti MORE, Edwards, a single mother, is hoping to ride those coattails to become just the second African-American woman elected to the Senate in history.

Edwards’s campaign on Monday expressed confidence that voters will side with “someone ... who understands their lives.”

“We are making sure everyone we contact knows the choice they face, between a business-as-usual Washington insider looking for a promotion, or a bold change-maker who will fight every day for everyday Marylanders just like Barbara Mikulski,” spokesman Benjamin Gerdes said in an email.

Several recent polls have shown Van Hollen gaining an edge, including a Monmouth University poll released last week that has him up by 16 points. But earlier surveys had Edwards ahead, and many observers expect Tuesday’s contest to be a nail-biter.

“There’ve been all kinds of conflicting polls,” Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) told The Hill recently. “The only conclusion you can draw from the polls is that it’s a close race.” Like Mikulski, Delaney has remained neutral in the contest.

Baltimore has emerged as the battleground, particularly since the candidates are expected to win their respective districts, which largely encompass suburbs of Washington. Indeed, while both lawmakers began Monday in other parts of the state — Edwards huddling with hotel employees at the National Harbor and Van Hollen shaking hands at a Metro stop in Prince George’s County — they shifted gears by early afternoon to be here, the state’s largest city.

The demographics, in an important sense, seem to favor Edwards. Of Maryland’s Democratic primary voters, roughly 60 percent are women, and the state’s African-American population — which polls heavily in favor of Edwards — is sure to play an outsize role, particularly in Baltimore. 

Still, Van Hollen — a former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — has a strong ground game and is expected to do well among men and whites, raising questions about whether black voters will come out in the numbers Edwards will need to make up the difference.

Some voters said Monday that the focus on race and gender is exaggerated in any event.

Jessie Parker, a 79-year-old African-American woman, said she’ll be voting on Tuesday but remains undecided just a day out. She singled out education and gun policy as the big issues on her radar, noting that both Van Hollen and Edwards have such similar positions on those and other issues that the choice becomes “real tough.” Race and gender, she added, are “not really” a consideration as she weighs her decision.

“Tonight I’m going to sit and get all my decision together,” said Parker, a retired day care operator. 

Boosting the likely turnout, Maryland voters will also be choosing their presidential primary picks on Tuesday. Clinton, a former secretary of State, is the clear front-runner, boasting a steep delegate advantage, but Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV MORE (I-Vt.) has kept things interesting with a string of wins in recent weeks, and he’s hoping to continue that this week.

Delaney said the intrigue in the presidential contest will be a factor on Tuesday.

“Four or five months ago people would have said [the presidential primary] will be largely settled by Maryland, and therefore there won’t really be that kind of top-of-the-ticket excitement,” he said. “But people think it’s a much more competitive race — that’s going to increase turnout.”

The race took a testy turn this month after a super-PAC backing Edwards ran an ad featuring President Obama that accused Van Hollen of caving to the National Rifle Association (NRA) by including an exception for the group in a 2010 campaign finance proposal he’d championed. The White House took the rare step of jumping into the debate, decrying the ad as “misleading” and asking the PAC to remove Obama’s likeness.

The group complied, but Edwards later doubled down on the message that Van Hollen was in bed with the NRA. Both lawmakers have an F rating from the powerful gun lobbyist group.

Edwards has also gone after Van Hollen for his past openness to a sweeping deficit-reduction package that included cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, programs sacrosanct to liberals.

Van Hollen has dismissed those charges, but it’s unclear what effect they’ll have on voters on Tuesday. Some said the attacks have backfired.

David Martak, lead volunteer for a Baltimore-area food pantry, said the tone is one reason he’s supporting Van Hollen.

“That turns me negative against anybody,” he said Monday.

Martak, 69, also expressed his frustration with Washington lawmakers in general — a gripe not unusual this election year, with the rise of outsider candidates like Sanders and Donald Trump.

“We don’t have a Congress that works for the people, they work for themselves. I’m sorry,” he said. “If I had my way I’d fire ’em all and rehire everybody else.”

Still, Martak clarified that he’s willing to give Van Hollen a shot. 

“I want somebody that’s got some kind of knowledge,” he said.

Van Hollen says he’s not taking anything for granted.

“We feel we’ve got a lot of momentum,” he said. “But you can’t stop until it’s 8 o’clock ... on Tuesday.”