Bruising Maryland Senate primary comes down to the wire for Democrats

A photo finish could be in store in Maryland this week as Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) fight for supremacy in what has turned into potentially the bloodiest primary on the Senate map this year.

Trone, the co-owner of Total Wine, had been buoyed for much of the race by his tens of millions in blanket advertising in an attempt to put him over the finish line. But that status has suddenly come into question as his lead appears to have evaporated into thin air.

A new poll released by Emerson College/The Hill showed that Alsobrooks, the favorite of the state’s Democratic establishment, has taken a slight lead ahead of Tuesday’s primary in what has become a bruising race for a seat Democrats can ill-afford to lose in November.

“Maryland is a small state in terms of politics, and everybody knows everybody. Nobody wanted to see this turn into a nasty fight,” said Katie Grant Drew, a Democratic strategist who was a longtime top aide to former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

“It’s not surprising that things get heated towards the end,” she added, “but especially given the fact that the winner of the primary will be facing a popular former governor, there was not an unreasonable expectation for the candidates to stay focused on the broader goal of keeping the seat in Democratic hands.”

The vast majority of the attacks have been one-sided as Trone has gone on the offensive against Alsobrooks, who has seen her stock rise in recent weeks. The beverage magnate has spent more than $61 million of his money thus far, and sources tell The Hill his ads are outpacing hers by at least a 6-to-1 margin, and potentially more, in the final days.

But Alsobrooks has been on helium watch in recent weeks despite the barrage of advertisements. The executive of the state’s second-largest county has the support of much of the state’s Democratic hierarchy, including Gov. Wes Moore, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Hoyer, with operatives arguing that Alsobrooks is on the rise because she is animating the base as voters have increasingly tuned into the race.

“You can buy name ID. It’s hard to buy excitement,” one Democratic operative with Maryland ties said, noting that Alsobrooks leads among both women and Black voters according to the Emerson/The Hill survey — two core constituencies for Democrats.

“In Maryland, you don’t win by going against the other guy,” the operative said. “You win by exciting the base.”

While Alsobrooks has been rising, Trone has been the leader in the clubhouse throughout much of the primary after months of heavy spending on the air.

The wealthy businessman has also argued that his financial prowess is a reason Democrats should get behind him. The party is set to spend hundreds of millions in Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and elsewhere in order to protect incumbents. The congressman’s deep pockets would help spare the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and outside groups from having to spend in the longtime Democratic stronghold.

“We’ll be able to plow tens of millions of dollars into it to beat Larry Hogan,” Trone recently told  Politico, referring to the Republican former governor running for the seat. “Because we need every dollar we can have to win in Arizona, win in Ohio, win in Montana.”

A victory for Alsobrooks would make history, as she would be the first Black woman elected to the Senate from the Old Line State. She would also likely become the second sitting Black woman in the chamber; Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) is the heavy favorite to replace the retiring Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) next year.

Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.) is the lone Black woman in the Senate right now, but she decided against running for a full term and likely will be replaced by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) after he defeated Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), among others, in the primary earlier this year.

Also checkering the final weeks of the race have been a number of gaffes by Trone, including accidentally using a racial slur during a committee hearing, labeling supporters of his primary opponent “low-level” and raising his voice with a reporter while on the campaign trail.

A second Democratic operative expressed surprise with this string of incidents because Trone had been known for being a disciplined campaigner throughout his House tenure since winning his seat, which is based in western Maryland, six years ago.

The winner will take on Hogan, who is already on a fundraising blitz of his own after he raised more than $3.1 million in less than two months during the first quarter and has proven his statewide bona fides with two high-profile wins in the deep-blue state.

Despite Hogan’s presence, Democrats remain confident that either one of the candidates has what it takes to topple him, and that the presidential race at the top of the ticket will add needed fuel to overcome the former governor’s strengths. President Biden carried the state over former President Trump by more than 33 percentage points in 2020 — the third-largest margin of any state the president won.

“This is a national election, it’s not a state election, and Marylanders are going to want to make sure that the Democrats control the agenda in Congress,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told reporters. “At the end of the day … it’ll be a clear choice for Maryland voters, and it also is helpful to know who’s at the top of the ticket, and all that means that it’s going to be a federal election, not a state election, and the Democrats are going to win.”

Cardin has not endorsed either to be his successor, indicating he didn’t want to weigh in because it’s his seat they’re seeking. He also added that Trone and Alsobrooks are “two excellent candidates who are both good people” and that he is confident in either going up against Hogan.

Hogan has led in most head-to-head surveys against both candidates since he launched a surprise, last-minute bid in mid-February. However, the recent Emerson/The Hill survey found both Trone and Alsobrooks leading the former governor in hypothetical match-ups. And Democrats have latched onto one polling number in particular: that 55 percent of Marylanders prefer that Democrats hold onto control of the upper chamber, according to a Washington Post/University of Maryland survey released in March.

At this point, Democrats are hopeful the bad blood does not spill over into the summer and allow Hogan — who has never run on a presidential ticket before, let alone with Trump on the ballot — to capitalize.

“People will recognize that when it comes to the future control of the Senate, they will put aside any differences and unite for the general election,” Van Hollen said.

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