Armed with a new poll suggesting he could run competitively against U.S. Rep. David J. Trone (D), Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany), the House minority leader in Annapolis, said Wednesday he is considering a late entry into the race to take on the wealthy congressman.
A handful of candidates, including Buckel’s House colleague, Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington), who was the Republican nominee in 2020, are already seeking the GOP nomination. The 6th District, which Trone has represented since 2017, is seen now as highly competitive since the newest congressional map was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) earlier this month — especially with the election cycle shaping up to be very favorable for Republicans.
“I’m giving it some consideration,” Buckel said in an interview, “though it’s never been part of my grand plan.”
Buckel said “consultants and people at national levels have been talking to me about how to put our best foot forward in the 6th District.”
The candidate filing deadline is 9 p.m. Friday, so Buckel will have to decide quickly. He said he is conferring with family, friends and his law partners and is also factoring in the commitments he made to his Western Maryland constituents and to fellow House Republicans in Annapolis to guide their election effort this year. Other considerations, he acknowledged, are Trone’s unlimited ability to self-fund his race, and the prospect of running against Parrott in a GOP primary.
“Neil Parrott and I are friends, so I wouldn’t enjoy that situation,” Buckel said.
But it seems apparent that national Republicans are trying to entice Buckel into the race. A national GOP polling firm, McLaughlin & Associates, has conducted a poll in recent days showing Buckel running within the margin of error in a hypothetical head-to-head contest with Trone.
The poll of 300 likely general election voters, taken Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, showed Trone with 44.5% of the vote to Buckel’s 40%. That was within the poll’s 5.7-point margin of error, suggesting the race would be very close.
On a generic ballot test for Congress, which asked voters in the district whether they’d rather be represented by a Republican or a Democrat, 45% said they’d prefer a Republican and 44% said they would prefer a Democrat.
“Trone — as an incumbent — performing no better than a generic candidate demonstrates his vulnerability,” pollster Rob Schmidt wrote in a memo summarizing the survey’s results.
The poll also found that Trone had “soft name awareness,” with a favorable rating of 36% compared to 23% of voters who viewed him unfavorably.
“A net positive image rating of only 13-points is not an encouraging sign,” Schmidt wrote. “This weakness extends to his job rating as just 41% Approve and 27% Disapprove of Trone, a similar spread to his image rating. Strong incumbents are almost always at or over 50% on these three metrics (ballot share, favorable rating and job rating) and Congressman Trone is below this threshold in all three cases.”
Equally distressing for Democrats, President Biden’s approval ratings in the district continue to decline, even though voters surveyed in the poll said they voted for him by 10 points in the 2020 White House election. In the GOP poll, 46% of voters said they approve of the job Biden is doing, compared to 53% who disapproved.
“It follows a pattern I’m seeing across the country, in terms of the president’s job approval over the last six to eight months and continuing to crater out,” Schmidt said in an interview. “It shows Republicans are expanding the playing field in the battle for control of the House.”
Schmidt, whose firm conducts polling for the House GOP Caucus in Annapolis, declined to say who commissioned the poll, except that “it’s a Republican-affiliated political organization in the state.” He said Buckel is not paying for it.
Schmidt said he did not survey GOP voters on a possible primary involving Buckel and Parrott. Asked if he tested other potential Republicans in a hypothetical general election with Trone, Schmidt replied “we of course asked other proprietary questions,” but said the survey did not include issue questions or test messages.
In an interview Wednesday evening, Parrott said he was unaware of the poll or of Buckel’s possible interest in the election.
“Everyone’s welcome in this race,” he said.
Trone beat Parrott, 58.8% to 39.2% in 2020, but the district became more conservative when it was redrawn to include all of Frederick County and lost a bit of territory in Montgomery County.
“When the bottom line comes down, when you’re talking about the primary or the general, I think the people are with me and I’m going to win a big victory in November,” Parrott said. “I think the people are with me because they know I’ve been working for them.”
Trone in recent days has acknowledged that the district has become more competitive and that he will have to hustle to secure a third term. With Congress on a holiday recess this week, Trone on Wednesday toured parts of Washington and Frederick counties with U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Under Secretary Xochitl Torres Small.
During the tour, the pair discussed federal funding opportunities with community leaders at a roundtable on rural broadband deployment and later met with municipal leaders to discuss infrastructure, business development and other projects.
“Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we’re creating better, higher-paying jobs and ensuring that rural Marylanders have access to essential technology like broadband,” Trone said in a statement after the tour. “With the collaboration of all levels of government, we’re building a better and brighter future for Marylanders.”
Buckel said he respects Trone but differs with him philosophically and believes there’s “an amazing opportunity” for Republicans in the 6th District this year regardless of whether he’s the GOP nominee.
Two national political handicappers, The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, currently rate the 6th District race as “lean Democratic.” Another national political tip sheet, Inside Elections, rates the race as “likely Democratic.”
Trone’s fortune could be a factor: Though he reported just $56,022 in his campaign account as of Dec. 31, he had already loaned his campaign $552,000 this election cycle and had already spent $784,534. Trone, the co-owner of the Total Wine and More liquor store chain, has spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money on his three previous congressional races.
Through Dec. 31, Parrott had $242,225 in his war chest and had spent $38,416 this cycle. Campaign finance reports for the first quarter of this year are due to be filed with the Federal Election Commission by Friday at midnight.
Reverberations at home and in Annapolis
Buckel’s political plans could have great bearing on the politics of the House GOP Caucus in Annapolis and on the election picture in Western Maryland.
Buckel was elected House minority leader just a year ago and there have already been two House minority whips during that time. The current whip, Del. Haven N. Shoemaker Jr. is leaving the legislature this year to run for Carroll County state’s attorney.
Meanwhile, if Buckel runs for Congress, that could forestall a potentially contentious Republican primary for state Senate in the 1st District in far Western Maryland. With veteran state Sen. George C. Edwards (R-Garrett) retiring, Del. Michael W. McKay (R-Allegany) and Allegany County Commissioner Jake Shade (R) are competing in the GOP primary for his Senate seat. But three separate political strategists said Wednesday that if Buckel runs for Congress, Shade may seek his vacant House of Delegates seat instead of running for Senate.
Disclosure: The David and June Trone Family Foundation was a financial supporter of Maryland Matters in 2017 and 2018.