Democrats face growing divide in Maryland Senate primary

Maryland’s Democratic Senate primary is growing increasingly fractious as the party prepares to take on former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in November, risking a potential intraparty brawl.

Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), who is the front-runner in the intraparty contest, recently faced criticism for making a racially charged slur during a budget hearing, for which he later apologized. In the ensuing controversy, a number of high-profile House Democrats threw their backing behind Angela Alsobrooks, his main Democratic rival.

Meanwhile, a number of recent polls have shown Hogan with a large lead against both Democrats, fueling concerns that the messy primary could make the party more vulnerable in what was supposed to be an easy win in November. 

“I hope it doesn’t,” said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist. “I am deeply concerned that we could lose this seat in November if we lose focus on the real target.”  

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released last week showed Hogan leading Trone 49 percent support to 37 percent in a hypothetical match-up. The gap was even wider between Hogan and Alsobrooks at 50 percent to 36 percent.  

Others have brushed off the polling so far, saying that it is too early and the messaging on the Democratic side has only just begun. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as “likely Democrat.”  

“General election polling right now in that race is pretty worthless,” said Justin Barasky, a Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2020.  

Trone, who is the founder and co-owner of Total Wine and More, has used his personal wealth to his advantage. The congressman has blanketed the airwaves, spending a whopping $13.7 million between last September and the end of the year. In total, Trone has poured $23.3 million into the race this cycle.  

Alsobrooks, on the other hand, has relied on outside donations, raising $1.78 million during the fourth quarter of the year.

“This primary is going to be a lopsided spending battle,” Feldman said.  

Most polls show Trone clearly in the lead. According to the same Washington Post-University of Maryland survey, Trone is ahead of Alsobrooks by 7 points.  

But Trone was dealt a blow this week following the controversy that erupted over his use of a racial slur on Capitol Hill. The congressman said later that it was a mistake.

“While attempting to use the word ‘bugaboo’ in a hearing, I misspoke and mistakenly used a phrase that is offensive,” Trone said. “Upon learning the meaning of the word I was deeply disappointed to have accidentally used it, and I apologize.” 

Days after the incident, five Black House Democrats, including Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.), Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), Joyce Beatty (Ohio), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.) and Jasmine Crockett (Texas), formally threw their support behind Alsobrooks, who is also Black.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who sat on the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack, also endorsed Alsobrooks amid the furor.

Alsobrooks touted the endorsements this week, referencing what she said was a growing coalition.  

“These leaders know my record, know the kind of public servant I am, and know that I will deliver results for the people of Maryland in the United States Senate,” she told The Hill.  

Trone has also received several prominent endorsements from members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.).  

“They know that I’m the only candidate in this race with a proven track record passing progressive bills through a divided Senate, and that’s what it’s all about,” Trone said, referring to his endorsers and supporters.

“People are less focused on what career politicians are saying about each other and more focused on who can best serve and power through Washington gridlock to get things done for Maryland families.”  

However, some Democrats are not convinced the endorsement race in the primary will ultimately have an impact on Democratic voters’ choices.  

“Who can get a message out that resonates most with primary voters?” Feldman said. “Endorsements don’t mean that much if you can’t tell a story.” 

Alsobrooks’s supporters acknowledge she has an uphill climb against Trone and his resources but point to the endorsements as a sign of momentum.  

“It’s absolutely David and Goliath,” said an adviser to Alsobrooks’s campaign. “What you’re seeing right now is people who really, really need a Democratic majority in the Senate, and so I think you’re seeing this rush of people going, ‘Oh my god, we need to win in November, who’s the best person to do that?’”  

“What people are sort of wondering is which candidate in the primary can particularly rev up the base, and I think you’re seeing from the endorsement side of things that people think that’s Angela,” the adviser said.  

Alsobrooks and Trone have already lobbed attacks at each other since announcing their respective Senate bids.

“I think there will be a lot of comparative campaigning, and I think to the extent that there is negative campaigning, it will focus more on personalities, because as a practical matter, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two on the issues,” said Len Foxwell, a veteran Maryland-based Democratic strategist. 

Gina Ford, Alsobrooks’s communications director, told The Hill that the county executive is “running a positive campaign focused on her impressive record, her progressive vision, and her ability to relate to and connect with Marylanders.” 

“And that’s the exact kind of campaign she’ll continue to run,” Ford said. “What’s clear is that Angela is the candidate who can best motivate the core constituencies of the Democratic base, which we will need to defeat Larry Hogan in November.”  

Meanwhile, Trone told The Hill that Democrats need to be laser-focused on defeating Hogan in November.  

“Voters don’t want to hear negative attacks,” the congressman said. “They want to know who we are, what we stand for, and how we’re gonna make their lives better. Most importantly, voters understand that our top priority must be defeating Larry Hogan and Mitch McConnell in November.” 

Regardless of how many attacks are launched during the primary, many Democrats say they are confident in either candidate’s ability to beat Hogan.  

“The fact is that gubernatorial races and U.S. Senate races are two entirely different things, and they are contested in very different ways,” Foxwell said. 

“In politics as in business, competition creates a better product, and whoever emerges from this Democratic primary will be stronger for having gone through a highly contentious primary campaign.” 

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