“People criticize me for spending my own money. I don’t know. Let’s see. I could buy a car, I guess. Maybe I could give more money to my children. I could donate it to the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. Absolutely. Oh, good thing, I guess.

“Or I could maybe try and change America.”

That’s U.S. Rep. David Trone. He was at the start of his U.S. Senate campaign, talking about relying on his considerable fortune to succeed Ben Cardin.

Boy, has he. He’s at $60 million and climbing with just a few days left in Maryland’s ludicrously expensive Democratic primary race.

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It’s so much that Democratic voters — early voting is over and election day is Tuesday — have to decide not just who is the best candidate for the job, Trone or his opponent, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks.

They have to decide if spending that much of your own money to win an election is, well, right. Money can’t buy me love, the Beatles’ song goes, but is it enough to get David Trone what he wants?

The Senate is filled with rich people, most of them men. Even Cardin, a lifelong public servant who moved up from the House in 2006, has an estimated net worth that qualifies him as a millionaire.

People in politics tend to have money, and the time, to devote to winning elective office. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad.

Trone’s politics aren’t an issue in this primary. His views are in line with what Maryland Democrats are likely to want in a replacement for the retiring Cardin. He and Alsobrooks may differ in details, but they represent the same brand.

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Their résumés are different, but neither would be uncommon in the Senate.

Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (left) and U.S. Rep. David Trone participate in a forum at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring in March. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Alsobrooks, of Upper Marlboro, has broader governmental experience, having served as a state’s attorney and as county executive since 2018. Trone is a successful entrepreneur, and even though he’s a Democratic backbencher in the House, the Potomac resident understands how Washington works after three terms.

Identity politics make them different. There are no women from Maryland in Congress, and Alsobrooks would be the first Black woman elected from this state. Some argue a business owner is the right choice for public office, and if that’s you, then Trone has that going for him.

More than anything else, it’s the money that separates them.

Trone says he’s liberated by his wealth, unencumbered by the demands of donors and able to follow his own path. It’s certainly how he sees political contributions, a transactional experience that breaks down to cash for access.

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The political action committee Woman Vote! has been airing ads attacking Trone for contributing to conservatives such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Trone is pro-abortion rights, but he described the donations as the cost of doing business for his family-owned alcohol retailer.

“And, I’m sorry, that will always happen.”

Alsobrooks is going the other way, raising around $7 million from a network of donors that would be hard to beat in any race but this one. There’s an argument to be made that raising money from donors is coalition building.

She’s even tried to jiu-jitsu his money advantage, calling it a sign of her strength.

“What would you say about a person who spent $50 million to fight you? He thinks I’m a formidable candidate,” Alsobrooks told my colleague Pamela Wood.

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If Trone wins, his likely opponent will have his own money.

Former Gov. Larry Hogan has reportedly said he expects to campaign without much financial help from the national Republican Party, and while he’s raising money he’ll probably loan himself a boodle.
Former Gov. Larry Hogan has enough money to run for Senate in a state where Republicans aren't the power spenders. (Photo by Kylie Cooper / Illustration by Rick Hutzell)

Former Gov. Larry Hogan is the presumptive Republican candidate in a GOP primary field of otherwise anonymous nonentities.

He made his fortune in real estate development, and although he operated as a moderate in office, he’s a traditional GOP guy — individual self-reliance and laissez-faire, small government. His party may have moved to the far right, but he has stubbornly stayed put.

Hogan has reportedly said he expects to campaign without much financial help from the national Republican Party, though big money Republican donors have seeded a pro-Hogan super PAC with at least $10 million.

Trone says his resources will be needed to defeat Hogan and keep Republicans from winning control of the Senate. That’s really what’s at stake in this election, keeping the lid on rampant populism.

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Criticizing an opponent’s money is nothing new. In the 3rd District congressional race, several Democratic candidates have gone after state Sen. Sarah Elfreth over others’ spending to support her.

United Democracy Project, a pro-Israel PAC, is independently spending almost $5 million to get her elected at a time when the war in Gaza has divided the party. Maybe it’s because Cardin has been a reliable supporter of Israel.

“The dark money entering this race from MAGA extremists outside the district is an affront to our democracy and an attempt to buy this seat,” John Morse, one of her opponents, said Thursday in a prepared statement.

Except it’s not dark money. UDP discloses its donors. And Elfreth not only didn’t ask for the help, she’s legally prevented from asking about it.

“I honest to God have no idea,” she said. “My policy position is nearly the same as everybody, except for Morse.”

Criticizing Trone for spending his moola is similar. If you don’t want him to win, it’s easy to paint his money as bad.

In the end, I suppose Trone could buy a car instead of trying to change America. Though, it’d have to be a doozy.

A 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO sold at auction last year for $48.4 million. With buyer’s fees charged by Sotheby’s, it topped out a bit higher, $51.7 million.
Nice car! (Photo courtesy of Sotheby's / Illustration by Rick Hutzell)

Speculation last fall was that a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO would sell at auction for $60 million, but it went for $48.4 million. Buyer’s fees charged by Sotheby’s topped it out a bit higher, $51.7 million.

Such is life for a billionaire.

All indications are that Trone and Alsobrooks are close. She’s lined up endorsements from most top Maryland Democrats, although that cuts both ways when you’re running against a rich maverick.

One recent analysis put Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore voters in the driver’s seat. Prince George’s will go for its hometown candidate in Alsobrooks, the thinking goes, while Montgomery will make Trone its favorite son.

I’m not so sure. I think Trone’s money will be the deciding factor, one way or the other.

Maybe the right way for voters to look at it is to think about what happens if he loses.

If you spend $60 million of your cash and you don’t win, it’s a rejection of wealth as the reason to run.

And there’s no refund.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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