The Washington Post worked hard to defeat Donna Edwards, then wasted no time crafting a narrative to explain her loss. “Lesson from Edwards’s loss: ‘It shouldn’t be about race,’” read a Post headline on election night. Edwards’ defeat shows “the limit of the power of identify politics,” Post reporter Bill Turque told WAMU the next day.
‘Identity politics’ refers to candidates highlighting personal attributes, such as gender or race, to convey their fitness for office.
In the Maryland Senate Democratic primary, Edwards, who is black, faced off against her House colleague, Chris Van Hollen, who is white. Both are progressive, Edwards a bit more so.
“When I began this race I decided that I was going to run as who I am: I am a black woman. There is no hiding that, nor would I want to,” Edwards told Buzzfeed.
Had she won the nomination, Edwards would have been well positioned to become the second black woman ever to serve in the Senate. “What I would add to the U.S. Senate is a different kind of life experience and that would inform how I feel about public policy,” she told MSNBC.
Black voters responded favorably to Edwards’ message: 57 percent voted for her, 37 percent for Van Hollen.
While Edwards did well among blacks, Van Hollen did far better among whites. He beat Edwards by 53 points among white voters, 72 to 19 percent.
For the Post, Van Hollen’s landslide victory among whites does not indicate identity politics at play, since he didn’t highlight his race or gender, obvious as they may be.
By putting her gender and race on the table, Edwards earned the Post’s ire. “Edwards’s focus on race and gender… prompts criticism that she is pandering to black voters,” the Post wrote in a front page story days before the election.
In addition to issuing its own attacks, the Post sought out voters, particularly black women, who shared its view. “Now that she’s running for the Senate against a Caucasian, she’s wrapping herself in the sisterhood cloth,” Artis Hampshire-Cowan told the Post. “It’s just race and gender, and I think we’re beyond it.”
“Just because you’re African American does not qualify you to be in the Senate,” Renee Miller told the Post’s Robert McCartney. Despite visiting Prince George’s County, where Edwards won two-thirds of the vote, McCartney exclusively quoted her critics. (McCartney has a history of attacking candidates with strong black support.)
The Post’s coverage carefully highlighted certain voices, while leaving others out. In the week leading up to the election, no African American was quoted in the Post (in print) criticizing Van Hollen, who decisively lost the black vote.
In the two days following the election, as the Post sought to craft the narrative for why Edwards lost, it ran four stories (in print) on the election. Seven people were quoted criticizing Edwards, all women and six black, according to the information provided.
Rather than defend Edwards from the Post’s attacks, her own party joined in. “The choice in this election is very clear,” Democratic representative Gerry Connolly told AP. “It is whether the people of Maryland want somebody who can be effective, or somebody who’s going to bask in her own feelings of moral superiority because of various and sundry factors, and effectiveness has nothing to do with it.”
“I thought the Republican Party was full of dog whistles but the Democratic Party has a foghorn,” Edwards told Buzzfeed. That foghorn can become a bullhorn when a major newspaper gets in on the act.
In a fiery concession speech Edwards called out her “beloved Democratic Party” for a lack of inclusion and diversity. See clip from CBS- Baltimore: