New Western Maryland district puts Trone in the hot seat in congressional rematch with Parrott

Published on: October 27, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: October 27, 2022 5:32 PM EDT

(left) Rep. David Trone, (right) Del. Neil Parrott
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Speaking before a supportive audience at a retirement community in Gaithersburg last week, Rep. David Trone laid out his biggest problem: “We got a new district,” the second-term Democrat said, joking that his colleague and onetime opponent, Rep. Jamie Raskin, saddled him with a bunch of extra Republicans.

The line drew laughs from the residents at Asbury Methodist Village and encapsulated the challenge for the second-term Democrat in his race for the 6th Congressional District, which he won by nearly 20 points two years ago. Last year’s political redistricting may have had its greatest impact on the district covering Western Maryland, cutting off a swath of D.C. suburbs that had kept the 6th squarely in Democratic hands for the last decade.

The realignment may have created an opening for Republican Del. Neil Parrott, Trone’s opponent of two years ago, who’s aiming to make GOP inroads in the Maryland Congressional delegation, where Democrats hold all but one seat.

The newly competitive district has drawn high-profile national visitors, with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz stopping in over the weekend for an event with Parrott and President Joe Biden delivering a speech at Volvo Group’s manufacturing plant in Hagerstown earlier this month. And Trone, the owner of the national liquor retailer Total Wine & More, has sunk some of his own fortune into the race, creating severely lopsided campaign finances. The wine magnate was sitting on more than $6 million in cash on hand at the end of September, largely thanks to $12.5 million of his own money he has invested in the race. Parrott, by comparison, had taken in just over $633,000 by the end of September.

The Republican challenger has attacked Trone as a super-wealthy interloper — Trone doesn’t live in the 6th District, and hasn’t during any of his tenure in Congress — and argued that the Democrat doesn’t represent the values and needs of Western Maryland.

“So far, most of the money that’s coming into this race is one person who wrote one check,” said Parrott. “That’s David Trone, and he wrote a $12 million check.”

At the event in Gaithersburg, Trone reminded audience members that, unlike some of his Democratic allies around Maryland, he’s not on a glide path to victory. Wes Moore is going to win the governor’s race by 30 points, the congressman predicted, while Democratic candidates for attorney general and comptroller should win handily as well.

“I’m the guy in the margin of error,” he said. “We’re gonna win, win, win, but this is the one where we gotta vote.”

D.C. suburbs vs. western MD

The redrawing of state political lines has turned the 6th into Maryland’s most — and maybe only — competitive congressional district, cutting off North Potomac and other very blue Montgomery County suburbs and picking up fast-growing — and purple — Frederick County. The new configuration shifted the district from one Biden won by 23 points in 2020 to one he would have captured by just 10, according an analysis by Politico. The analytics website FiveThirtyEight gave Republicans a one point advantage in the district.

That narrow balance is partly thanks to Parrott himself, who was among a group of Republican state legislators, as well as the national conservative group Judicial Watch, who sued over an earlier version of the state’s political map last year. Their victory has given Republicans a new lease in the 6th District, but Parrott said frustrations over Democratic handling of the economy have also helped to make his challenge competitive.

Voters “look at this race in particular and they say, ‘We want somebody who’s going to tell the truth, someone who’s relatable, someone who lives here and somebody who represents their values,” he said. “They see that in me, and they don’t see that in David Trone.”

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Del. Neil Parrott stands on a patio in front of a mic. Some people gather behind him.

Even so, Roger Hartley, dean of the college of public affairs at the University of Baltimore, called Trone’s financial advantage over Parrott “enormous” and likened the imbalance to a football game in which one team is playing without pads. Hartley expressed some surprise that Parrott hasn’t been able to bring in more money, given the apparently competitive demographics of the district, and noted that Trone’s financial cushion will allow him to ramp up his ground game and buy up TV ads in the expensive markets outside D.C. in this final stretch.

And while redistricting has dealt Trone a more difficult hand, the Democrat still has the considerable advantage that comes with incumbency, the University of Baltimore professor said. Incumbent candidates won in nearly 95% of their contests nationally in 2020 and with an even higher share in 2016, according to Open Secrets.

Asked about his large financial investment in the race, Trone dismissed his opponent’s criticisms and noted that his campaign has not accepted any contributions from political PACs. The hefty investment is a way of getting his name and message to a new group of voters, Trone said.

“I’m willing to spend my money that I worked hard to earn to introduce myself to 150,000 brand new voters and continue doing the work that I find so important,” the congressman said. “I’m willing to put in my capital and my time because I believe so fiercely that I can make a difference.”

In campaign events around the district, Trone has hammered on his bipartisan approach, touting a record of reaching across the aisle to his Gaithersburg audience. The congressman’s nephew died several years ago from a fentanyl overdose, and the consequences of the opioid epidemic — as well as the need to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable — have been a central message of his campaign.

The bulk of new voters in the 6th are in the purple area around Frederick, contested ground that has gotten substantial attention from Trone in recent weeks. The congressman attended events in Frederick County on eight different days since the start of October, according to a schedule provided by his campaign.

And the Democrat has labeled his opponent an “extremist,” dismissing the staunch social conservative as a “looney-tunes” candidate in an interview. In one ad, he attacked Parrott for an op-ed the delegate wrote nearly 20 years ago proposing that people with HIV be required to get tattoos to help prevent spread.

Responding at a press conference in Frederick, Parrott accused Trone of “lying” for suggesting he still backs the tattoo proposal and noted in an interview that he disavowed the idea more than a decade ago, as medical treatments for HIV improved.

Some attendees at the Frederick event expressed excitement at the possibility that redistricting could help deliver them Republican representation again.

Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins said many voters in his part of the state are motivated by concerns over inflation, illegal immigration and crime. Frederick remains one of the safest counties in Maryland, said Jenkins, a Republican, but some fear the same issues that have afflicted other parts of the state could push further west under the wrong policies.

“He understands what makes it that way,” Jenkins said of crime in Frederick. “He believes in law and order.”

Trone, on the other hand, doesn’t have western Maryland’s priorities at heart, the sheriff said. “Frankly, I don’t believe David Trone cares,” he said. “He is about himself. He is about building his empire.”

For some Democratic voters in the wake of the Trump presidency and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, concerns over the country’s democracy have vaulted in front of over policy concerns. Parrott said he accepts the result of the 2020 election, but added that he would not have voted to certify the results of some states, favoring local investigations into voter fraud.

At Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, resident Susannah Newman said casting her vote for Trone over Parrott was an easy decision. “No question is as big as democracy right now,” she said, and Parrott represents “everything I don’t agree with. Run down the list.”

“He’s extreme and he likes to couch it in better language,” she said.

Also in attendance at the Gaithersburg retirement community was Maryland Sen. Cheryl Kagan. The Democratic representative for Rockville and Gaithersburg appealed to the retirement community to get others out to the polls in support of Trone, urging them to call friends farther west in Frederick, Hagerstown, Garrett County and Allegany County.

And then a big turnout in their own community is going be key, she added.

“Western Maryland is harder,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure that Gaithersburg turns out for David Trone.”