Just over a week out from Maryland’s primary elections, a handful of Democratic races are being shaped by contributions from influential outside groups — in some cases with little information publicly available about the groups behind the spending, or their motivations.
Super PACs have mostly supplemented candidates in the competitive Democratic primary for governor, the premier race on the Maryland ticket this year, without shifting the balance of the field.
But outside political influencers are playing a more significant role in a few down-ballot races, in some cases putting more money on the table than candidates have brought in on their own.
Here’s how super PACs are leveraging their money in three of Maryland’s most heated primary contests:
Baltimore County state’s attorney
In Baltimore County, the Maryland Justice & Public Safety super PAC entered the competitive Democratic primary for state’s attorney in mid-June, and quickly pumped more than half a million dollars into political advertising for progressive candidate Robbie Leonard.
The committee — which may accept and spend unlimited money from individuals, labor unions, corporations and other PACs — reported receiving no contributions as of July 8, but has accrued more than $538,000 in debt since mid-June.
The committee owes most of that money to political consulting firm BerlinRosen, a New York City-based player helping elect left-of-center candidates in local races nationwide. The public relations firm fronted the money for Leonard’s campaign mailers and ads and to perform “research,” according to filings.
Because the expenditures are reported as loans, the PAC doesn’t yet have to disclose donors who might ultimately foot the bill. The super PAC has spent 11 times what Leonard has spent to elevate his campaign as of July 3, finance reports show.
BerlinRosen, which is loaning the PAC money for Leonard’s campaign ads, solidified its place as a political powerhouse in New York in 2013 when it helped former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio win a landslide victory. De Blasio quickly brought on BerlinRosen’s co-founder as an advisor, leading to numerous conflicts of interest that often involved the firm’s clients and public dollars.
The super PAC registered in Maryland, which is supporting only Leonard’s campaign, is an offshoot of the left-leaning Justice & Public Safety PAC. That committee is among dozens of similarly-named groups pumping money into local chief prosecutors’ races across the U.S., funded generously by New York billionaire George Soros and groups affiliated with him.
PACs affiliated with the Justice & Public Safety PAC have helped fund progressive candidates for head prosecutor in Virginia and Pennsylvania in recent years.
The progressive viewpoint on criminal justice was unheard of or politically unpopular “until big money started hitting these races,” elevating left-of-center candidates who pledged criminal justice reform, said Rory Fleming, an attorney and former legal fellow at Harvard Law School’s Punishment Project, a research and education hub promoting fairness and accountability within the criminal legal system.
Many district attorneys were “elected because a few famous people, billionaires, have deep pockets,” he said.
Leonard, a former public defender who has pledged to divert some nonviolent offenses from the courts, is running against self-described “tough” on crime State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who is among the most prominent voices on law enforcement in Annapolis and has coasted through his 16-year tenure without a primary challenger.
Shellenberger has spent a fifth of what the Maryland Justice & Public Safety PAC has accrued in debt.
Asked in March where he saw himself within the well-funded national movement of progressive prosecutors, Leonard said his “campaign is not paid for by anyone other than the people who live here and are affected by the policies and who want to see change happen.”
In July, Leonard, 40, said that remained the case.
”My campaign finance report is completely made up of Baltimore County residents and people who live in Maryland,” he said. “The majority are people in Baltimore County who are looking for change.”
”If there’s an outside group with progressive values and a record of electing Democrats — they’re gonna do what they wanna do,” Leonard said, noting that his campaign doesn’t coordinate with any outside groups.
In the battle between two Prince George’s County heavyweights in Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, spending tied to an influential Israel-aligned super PAC has become the unlikely beef between the two leading campaigns.
Former Prince George’s State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey is challenging former U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards for the seat she once held. And though the two avowed progressives hold many policy positions in common — both support Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, among other progressive pillars — they have clashed over big money flowing into the race from the United Democracy Project, a super PAC affiliated with the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
According to campaign finance reports, United Democracy Project alone has funneled over $4 million into the 4th Congressional primary, close to $1 million in pro-Ivey spending and more than $3 million against Edwards. Those totals do not include another nearly $1 million in AIPAC-associated expenditures that the Edwards campaign said they’ve identified. Spending by the AIPAC affiliate vastly outstrips the funding that either Ivey or Edwards have brought in on their own. Ivey led the field in campaign contributions filed at the end of June, with a little over $1 million, while Edwards came in just under the million dollar threshold.
More than $400,000 of the contributions to Ivey’s campaign come from AIPAC directly, and in recent weeks he has topped the “featured candidates” list on the organization’s website. Edwards has been endorsed by J Street, a separate pro-Israel group which has spent close to $300,000 on ads backing her or opposing Ivey.
While Edwards campaign spokesperson Amy Weinstock said AIPAC’s issues with the former congresswoman stem from a few of her votes and her support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the group’s attack ads have focused on issues unrelated to Israel-Palestine policy. Instead, they blast Edwards for her record on constituent services.
Ivey campaign spokesman Ramón Korionoff pointed to independent expenditures that have benefitted Edwards in this race, like a recent $550,000 digital ad buy by the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group. Weinstock argued that the contributions by the League of Conservation Voters are transparent and clearly rooted in issues important to the group, unlike the anti-Edwards ads, which don’t mention AIPAC.
On Israel-Palestine relations, Korionoff said Ivey “supports Israel’s right to exist and defend itself,” as well as a two-state solution negotiated by the Palestinians and Israelis themselves.
“Glenn Ivey is proud to have the support of the pro-Israel community. And everything in the ads they are airing is true,” said Korionoff. “Ms. Edwards has record of poor constituent services, and has said so herself” at a May candidate forum.
In a statement, Edwards said Ivey “wouldn’t have a chance without AIPAC’s money” and decried the group’s involvement as an attempt to send a message to national Democrats that they will pour endless money into opposing lawmakers who cross them.
“AIPAC’s relentless attacks have nothing to do with the people of Maryland’s fourth district. AIPAC is angry that I cannot be bought,” she said. “These outsiders have come into Prince George’s County from around the country and spent $5 million to buy the election for Glenn Ivey. It is terrible for the people of Prince George’s and and Montgomery Counties.”
When it comes to policy proposals for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, there’s not much daylight between Democrats Katie Curran O’Malley and Anthony Brown. Both candidates have promised to defend abortion rights in Maryland and both have backed the legalization of marijuana. Both would also break barriers in Maryland politics: O’Malley is running to become the state’s first woman attorney general, Brown to become the state’s first Black attorney general.
While volleys between the two opposing camps have focused primarily on the qualifications and resumes of the candidates, the intervention into the race by the super PAC VoteVets has sparked barbs between the candidates in recent days. The $400,000 media buy marked the first independent expenditure in the race and followed a late June ad in which O’Malley called Brown “a fine congressman” but argued that the former lieutenant governor lacks the relevant experience to oversee Maryland law enforcement.
“What a shame,” the VoteVets ad, which launched last week, proclaimed in response. The former judge “just dismisses the experience of one of the most qualified people to ever run for attorney general.”
O’Malley has raised money off of the ad in the days since and her campaign filed a complaint on Saturday with the Maryland State Board of Elections alleging that VoteVets failed to disclose its late-race expenditure in a complete, accurate and timely manner.
The complaint also notes the ad’s ties to Democratic Congressman David Trone, who represents Western Maryland.
Campaign finance records show that Trone’s wife, June, contributed $250,000 to the group days before VoteVets purchased advertising time to support Brown.
In an interview, O’Malley criticized the tactics of the VoteVets ad. The Trones and Brown should answer for their involvement with the ad, she said.
“Clearly, shame was written across my face. And that’s so unnecessary,” she said of the ad. “Why is it shameful for a woman candidate to contrast her experience? That’s what you do in a campaign.”
A campaign spokesperson for Congressman Trone, who is also up for reelection this year, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Brown’s campaign emphasized the congressman’s track record as a military attorney and said the campaign does not coordinate with outside groups.
“Veterans unfortunately often have their experience questioned, and it appears that VoteVets, a national leader in supporting progressive veterans, took issue with the negative portrayal that former Judge O’Malley has been pushing,” said campaign spokesman Dylan Liau Arant in a statement. “Congressman Brown is focused on talking with voters about his record of getting big things done for Marylanders and his vision for the office of the attorney general.”
- Baltimore County state’s attorney primary a choice about what kind of crime should be prosecuted
- Maryland’s 4th Congressional District primary features influential Prince George’s Democrats
- Democrats running for Maryland attorney general argue their experience is more relevant for the job
- Maryland’s Republican candidates for attorney general represent opposite wings of the party