Politics

Maryland primary to set up unexpectedly tight Senate race

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(BALTIMORE) — Maryland’s Democratic Senate primary is careening toward a bitter finish as voters decide who to nominate in an unexpectedly competitive race in the deep blue bastion.

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks and Rep. David Trone are the two main contenders in a primary that has sparked debates over everything from money in politics to electability to Democrats’ commitment to diversity to Senate control.

Trone, the wealthy founder of Total Wine & More and two-term congressman, has dumped more than $50 million of his own money into the race, has racked up endorsements from congressional colleagues and has insinuated that Alsobrooks isn’t ready for the major leagues of federal politics.

Alsobrooks, a Black woman who oversees one of Maryland’s largest counties in the suburbs of the nation’s capital (which is also one of the country’s richest majority Black counties) has consolidated support from local politicos while casting herself as an above-the-fray, grassroots contender.

Polling shows the candidates locked in a close race. According to 538’s polling average in the Maryland Democratic primary as of May 10, Trone is polling at 44.3%, while Alsobrooks follows with 38.7%.

The victor will likely face popular former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, whose 11th-hour candidacy turned the race from a sleepy affair safely in Democrats’ column to a race Democrats have to sweat in one of the country’s bluest states — with nothing short of Senate control at stake.

“The race is very fluid. If we were having this conversation a month ago, I’d say that there’s a clear advance for David Trone. But County Executive Alsobrooks has had a good run here as of late,” said longtime Maryland Democratic strategist Len Foxwell. “I think it’s a toss-up right now.”

Trone burst onto the scene with a war chest that would prove hard for Alsobrooks to match and for virtually any candidate anywhere to replicate, blitzing the airways with advertisements as part of a nine-to-one spending advantage over his opponent. Trone and groups supporting him have spent at least $45 million on advertising in the race, rapidly eclipsing Alsobrooks and groups supporting her, who put in at least $5.6 million on advertising, per nonpartisan ad tracking firm Ad Impact.

On top of that, Trone has the backing of congressional heavy hitters such as House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

However, he has been tripped up in the past few weeks. A verbal slip up in which he uttered a racial slur instead of the word “bugaboo” sparked a wave of negative headlines and ushered more endorsements to Alsobrooks. Also, a recent ad supporting Trone featured one supporter saying the Senate is not a place for those who need “training wheels” — a swipe at Alsobrooks that critics said was a punch below the belt.

Trone apologized for the verbal slip, saying he didn’t know the word was a racial slur. On Tuesday night, Trone said that the “training wheels” comment is one the supporter stands by, not one he made.

“And frankly, [Alsobrooks] doesn’t have the experience at the federal level,” Trone added — a mea culpa Alsobrooks’ supporters panned as inadequate.

Asked about the Trone’s attacks on her experience level in Riverdale Park, Maryland, on Thursday, Alsobrooks told ABC News that the tightening of the race triggered his remarks.

“The truth of the matter is because we are on course to win the race, he’s now turned to negative attacks,” Alsobrooks said to reporters.

“My opponent has spent $62 million trying to buy this race — after hearing about my experience, hearing about my record and about my vision for the state,” Alsobrooks added.

Alsobrooks is facing the daunting task of matching up against one of Congress’ wealthiest members by building support among popular lawmakers such as Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and members of what Foxwell called the state Democratic machine.

“[Alsobrooks] is the consummate insider [with] deep relationships inside the Annapolis clubhouse,” he said. “What we’re seeing is the Democratic political class and all these ads from the entire constellation of Democratic leaders in Maryland coming together behind [Alsobrooks].”

Alsobrooks’ candidacy has clear historic significance, especially in a state where more than 30% of the population is Black. No Black women currently serve in the Senate, after their already minuscule ranks dwindled from one to zero, after Vice President Kamala Harris departed for the White House.

“Black women deserve to be in all spaces where decisions are being made. It is shameful that in 2024, we do not currently have a Black woman serving in the United States Senate,” Dominik Whitehead, NAACP Vice President of Campaigns said in a statement to ABC News.

Taken together, the clashing appeals of the two candidates have set the stage for a race that observers said either Alsobrooks or Trone could win.

Towering over the race is Hogan, who hasn’t run in a presidential year or for federal office before, but has a track record of winning over Democratic voters, making electability against the two-term former governor the heartbeat of the race rather than any of the minimal policy disagreements between Alsobrooks and Trone.

“A big part of the process for them is figuring out who has the best chance to win in November because it’s likely that the Senate is going to be chipped by a few seats one way or the other,” said Michael Hanmer, the director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement.

At a Tuesday night rally at a movie theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, Trone led a “beat Hogan!” chant and said that his record and experience means he has what it takes to win in the general election, even as he struggled to differentiate himself from Alsobrooks.

“This election, the U.S. Senate is at stake. Our democracy could be at stake,” Trone told the crowd.

Interviews with voters revealed a particular attention to party control of the Senate next year and who could give Hogan a tougher challenge.

“I think right now, it’s really hard for me to support Republican candidates in general,” said Potomac, Maryland, voter Elizabeth Miller, who voiced worries about the “greater composition of our political sphere” and said she voted for Trone in the primary.

“I’m for sure voting Democrat just because having control in the Senate is such a big deal for me,” added 18-year-old first-time voter Mackenzie Kinol, who was still deciding who to support when asked by ABC News on Tuesday.

Amid the Democratic infighting, Republicans are chomping at the bit to have Hogan on their general election ballot this November.

Sen. Steve Daines R-Mont., head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said last week that Hogan’s favorable polling and posture as a “maverick” who breaks with both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden would make him competitive in November.

“He has a maverick kind of brand as a popular two-term Republican governor in a blue state. Marylanders — they trust him. He’s got a proven track record. And Larry Hogan is just a terrific candidate,” Daines said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Daines echoed Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, who told Politico last week that he thought Maryland was in play for Republicans this cycle, along with Ohio, Montana and Pennsylvania.

But Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst at 538, threw some cold water on Republican’s Maryland pickup prospects.

“In 2020, only one state voted for different parties for president and Senate. In 2016, none did. Perhaps it could happen this year in a swing state, but Maryland voted for Biden by 33 percentage points in 2020, and he will probably win it by a similar margin in 2024. A Senate candidate overperforming his party’s presidential candidate by that much is virtually unheard of,” Rakich said.

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