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Election 2024 Government & Politics

Risks and opportunities for both parties as race to replace Trone ramps up

A train operates on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. photo by Yaakov Moshe Dek/Wirestock Creators.

Combine a rare Maryland congressional vacancy with a free ride for most of the elected officials who might seek the seat, and there could be a surfeit of candidates lining up to try to replace U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-6th), who is running for U.S. Senate in 2024.

Trone’s congressional district, which covers part of Montgomery County and most of Western Maryland, is far and away the most competitive in Maryland, and there will be intense interest in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. The timing of the race to replace Trone means most of the current officeholders who might run would not have to sacrifice their seats this cycle, which could increase the number of candidates in both parties.

Given the narrowly divided U.S. House of Representatives, it may not be hyperbole to say that control of the chamber could come down to this district. But both parties may have their work cut out for them.

For the Democrats, the challenge will be finding a nominee who can appeal not just to the liberal activists of Montgomery County, but to more moderate voters in Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties. For Republicans, the challenge will be avoiding nominating an overly “Trumpy” candidate who will turn off moderate and suburban voters.

After being represented by Democratic moderates for several years, the district in 1992 was captured by a Republican, former Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, who held the seat for 20 years. But when Democrats in Annapolis redrew the state’s congressional boundaries following the 2010 Census, the 6th District fell back into the Democratic column.

The state’s newest congressional map, which was hastily redrawn last spring following a court order, made the 6th District more competitive. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report labels it a D+2 district, meaning it voted 2 points more Democratic than the nation did overall in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Only 45 of the nation’s 435 congressional districts are within the highly competitive D+3 to R+3 range.

“I think it’s one of those districts we could definitely win, if we have a good candidate,” said former state Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick).

Hough said that 2022, when Trone defeated then-Del. Neil Parrott (R-Washington) by 10 points, was “a bad cycle [for Republicans], obviously, a bad election year, for multiple reasons. Having Dan Cox at the top of the ticket and abortion and all kinds of other issues. It was just a bad cycle, a terrible cycle in Maryland.”

Hough, who narrowly lost a race for Frederick County executive last year, ruled himself out of the congressional contest but believes it’s winnable for the right Republican.

Hough and others noted that residents of the western panhandle of the state often feel neglected when it comes to their representation in Congress since redistricting ended Bartlett’s 10-term hold on the seat. About a third of the district’s population is in Montgomery County, where Trone and his predecessor, former Rep. John Delaney (D), live.

Running in the 6th District “seems to simply be a pathway for some wealthy folks from Montgomery County who can’t beat [8th District Democratic Rep.] Jamie Raskin to get themselves a seat in Congress,” said Del. Jason Buckel (R-Allegany), the House minority leader in Annapolis, who is among the Republicans eyeing the race.

A Democratic nominee from the progressive side of the party could help Republicans, he said.

“It’s a purple district. It shouldn’t be represented by someone far to the extremes of either party’s ideological base because it doesn’t really fit the district,” Buckel observed.

Peter Perini, a longtime Democratic leader in Washington County, holds a similar view of the political dynamic.

“I’m not sure that the Democrats of Western Maryland would go for a far-left Democrat from Montgomery County,” he said. “Both of our past two congressmen [Trone and Delaney] have governed from the middle.”

And yet, most of the potential candidates in the Democratic field are based in Montgomery County.

“There’s a tongue-in-cheek joke swirling around that anybody who ever voted in Montgomery County now is thinking of running for Congress,” Perini said.

The emerging Democratic field

On the Democratic side, state Del. Joe Vogel of Montgomery County, who is 26 years old and has served in the House of Delegates for just four months, was first out of the gate with a video announcement Monday. He began stumping the district almost immediately with a generational appeal, and is also sending out fundraising solicitations.

“When it comes to defending our democracy, protecting our fundamental freedoms, and keeping kids safe, it’s clear that the politics of old just aren’t working,” Vogel said in a statement. “Right now, the status quo hurts the student in Germantown as much as it hurts the small business owner in Frederick as much as it hurts the mother in Hagerstown as much as it hurts the family farmer in Cumberland. The generational challenges we face call for a new generation of proven problem solvers who are ready to get the job done — and I’m proud to be in this fight as we work to build a better future for all Marylanders.”

Vogel has worked as an intern on Capitol Hill and for a range of national political campaigns.

Several women are also lining up for the Democratic primary — and that could be significant for primary voters, as the state has been without a female member of Congress since the beginning of 2017.

Del. Lesley J. Lopez (D-Montgomery), who just finished a high-profile stint as chair of the legislative women’s caucus in Annapolis, is seriously pondering a run.

“It’s a lot of work,” Lopez, 39, said in an interview. “It’s a lot of competition. It’s a lot to ask of my family.”

Lopez, whose children are 3 and 1, said she is not going to rush a decision to join the race. She has also worked on Capitol Hill and could be aided by her work for the past half dozen years with the national group Run for Something, which has groomed young progressives to run for political office.

“My feeling is it’s better to be your own best version of a candidate than to be the first person out of the gate,” Lopez said of her deliberations.

Krish Vignarajah, who runs the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018, taking 8% of the vote, is pondering a run. She is also the mother of young children — including a 5-week-old daughter — suggesting a decision on running will come later rather than sooner.

“I’m flattered by all the encouragement to run because serving others is my passion and has been my life’s work,” Vignarajah, 43, said Tuesday. “Right now I’m enjoying my time off with my 5-week-old and 5-year-old daughters and focusing on helping immigrants navigate the same challenges my parents faced decades ago.”

Vignarajah’s older daughter was 3 months old when she launched her bid for governor. She previously worked as a policy adviser for former first lady Michelle Obama and also worked in the State Department.

Another formidable potential Democratic contender is former Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner. Gardner, the first Frederick County executive, was termed out of office in December after eight years on the job. She also served on the old Frederick County Board of Commissioners for a dozen years, and was state director for former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).

If she runs, Gardner, 66, may be the only Democrat of stature with a base outside of Montgomery County, and that could be a factor in the primary calculus.

Gardner could not be reached Tuesday.

Another potentially significant Democratic candidate could be April McLain-Delaney, an attorney, philanthropist and top official at the U.S. Department of Commerce. She is the wife of John Delaney, who held the 6th District seat for three terms.

Collectively, the Delaneys are worth several million dollars, and that could become a factor in the race if McLain-Delaney, 58, chooses to self-fund a campaign. She did not immediately respond to requests for comment this week.

Two other potential Democratic candidates for the seat are state Sen. Brian J. Feldman and Del. Lily Qi, who represent the same legislative district in Montgomery County.

Feldman, the 62-year-old chair of the Committee on Education, Energy and the Environment, has flirted with running for higher office before, and just won the committee gavel at the end of last year. With the primary set for May 14, 2024, he would be spending the last few months of the primary campaign tied up with consequential legislative business in Annapolis. On the other hand, his job leading a committee with a broad portfolio could help his fundraising efforts.

Qi, 59, would be the first member of Congress born in mainland China if she ran for and won the 6th District seat.

Feldman and Qi did not respond to phone messages this week.

Ben Smilowitz, a 42-year-old nonprofit leader and advocate who took 16% of the vote against Trone in the 2022 Democratic primary, challenging the congressman from the left, is considering a second bid for the seat, but needs to focus first on his day job.

“I think we built a great foundation to work from and I really enjoyed campaigning and getting to know people in Western Maryland,” he said. But Smilowitz, who raised about $100,000 to challenge Trone, who spent $4 million in the primary and $13 million on the 2022 election overall, said the price of entry could be prohibitive.

“The amount of money required for these races is insane,” he said. “It makes it tough for grass-roots candidates.”

George Gluck, 76, a frequent candidate for the seat, filed to run in 2024 well before Trone announced his plans to run for Senate.

Four Democrats mentioned as possible candidates for the 6th District seat told Maryland Matters this week that they do not plan to run: Montgomery County Councilmember Marilyn Balcombe, former Montgomery Councilmember Craig Rice, Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman, and Emily Keller, the former mayor of Hagerstown who is now a special secretary for opioid response in the Moore administration. All expressed a varied level of concern for the Democrats’ ability to hold the seat without Trone in the race.

“I’m worried about this position,” Balcombe said. “It’s a purple district — purple leaning red.”

The emerging Republican field

Dan Cox, the controversial GOP nominee for governor in 2022, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the 8th District in 2016 and served four years in the House of Delegates, said this week that he is pondering the race.

“Since Congressman Trone has announced his intent to run for Senate we have received requests, local and national, to consider running for the open seat as it is clear a consistent conservative with the experience and ability to serve all the people without compromising constitutional principle can win this seat,” Cox, 48, said in a text exchange. “We have made no decision yet and Valerie and I intend to pray about it just as we teach our children to pray for all our government officials. It is important that Maryland have more balance in Congress reflecting the voices of the sixth district and that will mean we as Republicans must do all we can to win back the sixth district which was long held by my former boss Congressman Roscoe Bartlett.”

Cox said he has no timeline for making a decision.

Parrott, who lost to Trone by 20 points in 2020, when the district was more strongly Democratic, and then lost by 10 points last year, said he is discussing a third campaign with his wife.

“This district will be the most competitive congressional race in the state,” said Parrott. “It will be one to watch.”

Parrott, who continues to display several campaign signs throughout the district, especially in his home base of Washington County, said Trone leaving the race evens the playing field.

“Two years ago, I was outspent 10-1,” said Parrott. “David Trone wrote himself a personal check for over $10 million. We raised and spent over a million dollars. But it’s very hard to raise the kind of money to match what Trone put in. That will not likely be the case this time.”

Parrott, 52, added that he expects to “have an event in the next month where I’ll be making an announcement.”

Buckel, the Allegany delegate, is also considering a run and likely won’t decide before July or August.

“We had some polling done in the 2022 cycle which suggested that myself and other Republicans had a fair chance against (Trone),” said Buckel, 51.

David Brinkley, 63, the former state budget secretary who represented Frederick County in the Maryland Senate, called a run for Congress “a possibility.”

Brinkley, 63, ran for the 6th District seat in 2012. He lost the Republican primary that year to Bartlett, the incumbent.

Already filed for the race are: Mariela Roca, a medical logistics specialist and Air Force veteran who also sought the seat in 2022, when she finished third in the Republican primary; Chris Hyser, a Thurmont resident and retired state trooper; and Todd Puglisi, a Germantown resident who finished ninth in a 10-candidate Republican primary scrum for U.S. Senate in 2022.

Also mentioned as potential GOP candidates: Kelly Schulz, the former Frederick County state lawmaker who served in former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s cabinet and lost the Republican gubernatorial primary last year to Cox, and Matthew Foldi, a conservative commentator who lost the 2022 primary to Parrott.

Schulz, 54, who became CEO of the Maryland Tech Council last fall, did not respond to a request for comment this week. Neither did Foldi, 26.

Hough said the perfect Republican candidate would have three things: First, the ability to raise money or self-fund a campaign to pay for the high cost of a campaign in the Washington, D.C., television market.

“If you can’t raise at least a million you shouldn’t be running,” he said.

Additionally, a strong GOP candidate would be a political moderate.

“It’s a swing district,” said Hough. “It only leans Democrat by a point or two. You’re gonna have to win independent votes. They’re gonna need a Republican that can appeal to the middle of the electorate.”

A good candidate, he added, should also be without “a lot of personal or professional baggage.”

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report. 

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include additional candidates who have already filed to run in the 6th District Republican primary, and to include Jud Ashman among the Democrats who are not planning to run for the 6th District seat.


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Risks and opportunities for both parties as race to replace Trone ramps up