In The Year Of The Woman, Can A $10 Million Man Win A House Seat?

Aruna Miller at a January Candidate Forum in Frederick, Maryland. (Photo: Ricky Carioti, The Washington Post)

As a woman and an immigrant, state Del. Aruna Miller personifies the Democratic candidates dominating the 2018 midterm elections as she seeks to succeed Rep. John Delaney in Maryland and help her party retain the seat.

But her chief rival in the race, businessman David Trone, is spending more than $10 million of his own money on his campaign, an amount that threatens to overwhelm any advantage Miller hoped to glean from endorsements from Emily’s List and a trove of state lawmakers.

Miller and Trone are among eight Democrats running in Tuesday’s primary in the state’s most competitive House contest, anchored in a gerrymandered swath that stretches from Washington’s suburbs to Western Maryland.

The race is an opportunity for Democrats to elect a woman to Maryland’s all-male congressional delegation. But the winner is almost certain to face another woman, Republican Amie ­Hoeber, in a general election that is likely to generate national interest as both parties seek to control the House.

The 6th District seat was held for years by a Republican, until Democratic leaders redrew the boundaries in 2012. Now it leans Democratic, though Republican Dan Bongino nearly ousted Delaney in 2014.

“This is one of the very few that’s a toss-up,” said state Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who is not endorsing in the race. “The outcome could be the deciding factor to whether there’s checks and balances to President Trump’s policies.”

Miller, 53, a two-term delegate, hopes that voters tire of Trone’s ubiquitous television ads and dismiss him as a dilettante trying to buy his way into national politics. Only two years ago, Trone spent $13 million on his losing campaign for the adjoining 8th District seat won by Jamie B. Raskin (D).

“This is an individual who is shopping around for a seat,” Miller said. “He has no base.”

Trone, the owner of Total Wine & More, a national chain of liquor stores, dismisses the portrayal, saying he has spent 18 months traveling the district and meeting voters.

“We’ve had a real opportunity to get out and talk and listen,” he said.

Trone has also outspent his rivals at a rate of more than 10 to 1, an enormous advantage as he has sought support in the district’s four rural counties.

“The spending is sort of at incomprehensible levels,” said Keith Haller, a pollster unaffiliated with any candidate in the race. “Trone has checked every Democratic box, not with a pencil but with a giant magic marker.”

Haller predicted that Republicans will pillory Trone’s spending if he wins the nomination, particularly in a district with a population of economically struggling rural voters.

Democratic congressional candidate David Trone at the January forum in Frederick. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

“It’s red meat for the Republicans,” Haller said. “The fact that he can do it will be the albatross in November.”

Trone cast himself as the race’s “underdog” and “outsider,” even as he hosted a fundraiser for President Barack Obama at his Potomac home and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to party organizations and Democratic and Republican candidates nationwide.

He says that Miller and another candidate, state Sen. Roger Manno (D-Montgomery), have the edge in the race because they are “professional politicians” who have won previous elections.

Invoking Delaney and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, both tycoons turned politicians, Trone described himself as a “disrupter” who needed to spend money to introduce himself to the electorate.

“Voters thank me for putting my own funds in,” Trone said, dismissing criticism of his self-funding as coming from political “insiders.”

Democrats dominate Maryland’s U.S. House delegation by a 7-to-1 margin, a dynamic that will largely endure even if Republicans capture the seat in November.

On the Eastern Shore, home to the lone Republican-held seat, six Democrats are seeking the nomination to challenge the four-term incumbent, Rep. Andy Harris. The race has drawn the interest of D.C.-based activists who are targeting Harris because of his opposition to legalizing marijuana.

None of the state’s Democratic House incumbents face serious challenges Tuesday, or from Republicans in the fall.

The Democrats running in the 6th District — including pediatrician Nadia Hashimi, retired intelligence officer Andrew Duck, retired economist George English, businessman Chris Graves and aerospace executive Christopher Hearsey — largely agree on the issues.

But Trone’s spending has made the race another test of whether a self-financed candidate can spawn a political career. In addition, Miller’s gender and ethnicity — she’s an Indian American — raises the question of whether Democratic voters will accept a nontraditional candidate.

“Trone represents what politicians used to look like, and Miller represents what they’re going to look like,” said Todd Eberly, a St. Mary’s College political-science professor.

Delaney, who is leaving Congress to run for president, has declined to endorse in the race, describing Miller, Trone and Manno as “very strong.” Delaney said Trone “is more likely to have the resources to go dollar for dollar” with a well-funded Republican, though he acknowledged that out-of-state money could flow to any Democratic nominee.

Like Trone, Delaney dipped into his personal fortune to launch his political career. The congressman defended Trone’s spending, saying he has been “transparent,” and he drew a contrast between the businessman’s approach and the “dark money” that pervades national politics. “That should be the real thing people should be concerned about,” Delaney said.

State Sen. Roger Manno (D-Montgomery), another candidate for the 6th District seat, attends the forum. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

In interviews, voters expressed a range of views about the importance of political experience and Trone’s spending.

“It’s like any job — you don’t take a guy fresh out of college and put him in the fire pit,” said Herb Edelstein, 73, a math teacher who attended a candidates forum in Potomac. “Trone talks a good game, how he gives to this cause and that cause. Great. He should continue to do that.”

Laverne Markowitz, a retiree who also attended the forum, said it struck her as unfair that Trone’s rivals did not have the money to compete with him on television. “I’d like to see more women in power,” Markowitz said.

But her husband, Jack, said Trone’s business success made him worthy of serious consideration. “His money doesn’t bother me,” he said.

Two years ago, Raskin defeated Trone despite being outspent by an 8-to-1 margin. But Raskin had spent nearly a decade in state politics, was well known to voters and had assembled a superior political organization.

Manno, the state Senate majority whip in Annapolis, has endorsements from numerous unions and progressive groups. But he has raised only $331,000 — including a $72,000 loan from himself — less than a quarter of Miller’s total and less than 1/30th of what Trone has given his own campaign.

Trone had spent $9.5 million on the race as of the latest filing deadline; Miller had spent $801,000.

“We’re up against a big self-funder and out-of-state donors in an attempt to buy a congressional seat,” Manno said. “I don’t think it should be allowed to happen in America.”

Miller has had her own frustrations, including not being endorsed by anyone in Maryland’s congressional delegation. Trone was endorsed by Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D) and Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D), to whom he and his family and businesses gave nearly $200,000 during the 2014 gubernatorial race.

In early April, Miller was targeted by Maryland’s Republican Party, which sent out mailers attacking her as weak on crime. Paul Ellington, a political consultant advising Hoeber, said he prefers that she be the only woman in the race in November. Trone, he said, would be an easier target than Miller.

“Trone is out of touch,” Ellington said. “I don’t think he knows the district or the voters, and he has decided to spend us into oblivion. That will be fodder for us.”

But Trone is ready to make an issue of Hoeber’s own funding of her 2016 campaign, when her husband, Mark Epstein, gave nearly $4 million to a super PAC that supported her.

“Amie Hoeber doesn’t want to run against David Trone,” Trone said. “She knows her goose is cooked.”

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