Six Republicans seeking to replace U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-6th) next year substantially agreed on a range of issues at their first candidate forum of the election cycle Wednesday night.
With national conservative provocateur David Bossie, the Republican National committeeman for Maryland, serving as moderator, offering questions that could have come from any Fox News prime time host, the candidates picked apart President Biden’s record managing the economy, protecting the U.S. border, and competing with China.
They railed against “left-wing politicians,” called Biden’s policies “a travesty,” and universally called for lower taxes and less government spending; stronger border protections; and greater parental rights and more options for school choice programs.
In many cases, it was difficult for the candidates to distinguish themselves, though they offered different life stories and rhetorical flourishes. Republicans who attended the event at the BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown said they liked what they heard and also liked the fact that the candidates were civil with one another.
“We have six incredibly smart and articulate candidates,” said Bossie, the longtime president of the group Citizens United. “I’d be proud to have any of these folks representing us in the 6th congressional district.”
The race to replace Trone in the 6th District, which takes in most of Western Maryland and part of Montgomery County and is by far the most competitive in Maryland, has been slow to develop in both parties. But Wednesday’s forum, sponsored by the Upper Montgomery Republican Women’s Club, served as an unofficial kickoff on the GOP side.
With Trone, a self-funder, giving up the seat to run for Senate, many GOP strategists believe the party can compete on a more level playing field in 2024. None of the current candidates on the Republican side is especially well known, however — though it’s possible that better-known candidates could emerge.
Former Del. Neil C. Parrott, the GOP nominee against Trone in 2020 and 2022, has created an exploratory committee as he ponders a third run, but he was not on the stage Wednesday night. Neither was Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany), the House minority leader in Annapolis, who says he’s contemplating a run.
“I expect there will be one or two people who could get into the race still,” said Nicole Beus Harris, the state GOP chair, who attended the forum. “But it is getting pretty late to put together a campaign.”
The 2024 Maryland primary has been set for May 14.
At Wednesday night’s forum, Tom Royals, a Navy veteran, came with an entourage of young and vocal volunteers, who waved campaign signs that said, “Send a fighter,” with a silhouette image of a Navy fighter plane. They cheered his opening statement so loudly that they drew a mild rebuke from Bossie.
Royals characterized every topic the candidates were asked about — inflation, immigration policy, crime, education, foreign affairs, election security, and mask and vaccine mandates during COVID — as a crisis. And he used most of the questions to repeat the statement, “When America is under attack, you send a fighter to Congress.”
The GOP field includes one current elected official, Woodsboro Mayor Heath Barnes, and a former official, ex-Del. Brenda J. Thiam, who was appointed to her seat representing Washington County but lost a bid for a full term last year.
Thiam emphasized the work she did in the House of Delegates, promoting “conservative, common-sense practices” in a heavily Democratic chamber.
Barnes cast himself as an unlikely contender for Congress who rose from homelessness and an unstable family life. When the conversation turned to border security and immigration, Barnes said he was the only candidate in the race to travel to Texas, to confer with Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and witness the confusion along the border.
The most vocal conservative candidate appeared to be Chris Hyser, a retired state trooper who has been part of a conservative group monitoring the activities of the school boards in Montgomery and Frederick counties in recent months. A former military contractor who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hyser described the opioids coming into the country from Central America as “an act of war.”
“Each pill that comes across the border is a bullet aimed at our citizens,” he said.
Another candidate, Mariela Roca, an Air Force veteran and medical logistics specialist, said that as a mother of two young children who faces the same everyday challenges as most voters, she is the strongest Republican candidate for the general election.
“A vote for Mariela Roca is a vote for a conservative candidate who understands the issues and has a legitimate chance to win in November,” she said.
If there was an outlier among the six candidates, it was Todd Puglisi, who told the audience he works at McDonald’s and Arby’s.
“I have so much more in common with you than our leaders in Washington,” he said.
When Bossie asked the candidates for a show of hands on whether they would support completing President Trump’s envisioned border wall with Mexico, Puglisi didn’t raise his. He explained that the money it would cost to build the wall would be better used to deploy a military force along the border. Puglisi was also the only candidate who said he did not favor universal ID requirements for registered voters, and he also seemed more tolerant of vaccine and mask mandates during COVID and closures of restaurants and businesses during that time.
The next yardstick of Republican candidate strength will come in mid-October, when they’re required to release their campaign finance reports covering fundraising and spending activities between July 1 and Sept. 30.
Eleven Democrats are currently seeking the 6th District seat and the field is expected to grow in the weeks ahead.