For months, Angela Alsobrooks and David Trone have been going back and forth on the campaign trail, vying to become the next U.S. senator for Maryland.

Trone, a wealthy congressman from Montgomery County, has talked about the need for second chances, promoting criminal justice reform and help for those returning from prison. He’s talked about growing up in a Pennsylvania farm family and founding a national chain of wine stores.

Alsobrooks, a former prosecutor who is now the Prince George’s County executive, has her own story of her family being chased out of a Southern town due to racist law enforcement. And she counters that too many people don’t get “first chances,” let alone second chances.

Both candidates assumed that the winner of the Democratic primary in May would waltz through the general election to win a coveted seat in the U.S. Senate.

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Larry Hogan had other ideas.

The Republican former governor’s surprise entrance in the Senate race has upended the campaigns of the Democratic front-runners, with the winner facing a formidable general election fight amid a national fight between the parties for control of the levers of power in the nation’s capital.

“This becomes a potentially consequential race,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland who teaches a course on Maryland politics.

U.S. Rep. David Trone, who is running for the U.S. Senate, greets a panel attendee at Urban Reads Bookstore and My Mama's Vegan on Feb. 4, 2024. The panel discussed reentry programs. (Taneen Momeni/for the Baltimore Banner)
Prince George’s County Executive and U.S. Senate candidate Angela Alsobrooks chats with a supporter during a meet-and-greet at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia, Md. on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Democrats currently hold a razor-thin 51-49 majority in the Senate. There are 34 seats up for election this year — more than two-thirds of them held by Democrats or independents who caucus with Democrats — and Republicans would need to flip just two to regain control of the Senate.

Democrats are defending seats across the country — and Maryland wasn’t supposed to be on that list. Now that it is, the race is shifting.

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“It had been a contest between who is the best voice for Democrats,” Eberly said. “Now it has to be: Who has the best chance of beating Larry Hogan? They’re going to fight each other over who has more electability.”

The tenor shifted within minutes of Hogan’s surprise announcement.

Both Democratic campaigns, their supporters and the national Democratic Party quickly started talking about Hogan as a threat — a man who would follow national Republican marching orders and who would support an abortion ban and conservative Supreme Court justices, they alleged.

Democrats seized on reports that Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell recruited Hogan to run.

“Mitch please,” was the snarky response from Alsobrooks, shared on social media and in a press release. “Marylanders deserve a senator who fights of their interests, their freedoms, their democracy. Not Mitch McConnell’s or the Republicans’ new best friend.”

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Both Alsobrooks and Trone began talking about how they’re the one to beat Hogan and keep Maryland’s Senate seat in Democratic hands — and hold onto the Democratic majority.

“Defending our narrow Senate majority just got a lot tougher, but we know that Angela Alsobrooks is the strongest candidate to take him on,” read a fundraising blast from her campaign.

“Trone is the only candidate who can beat Hogan,” declared a headline on a Trone campaign press release.

“The stakes in this election have never been higher, and Maryland Democrats have to be focused on doing whatever it takes to beat Larry Hogan and Mitch McConnell and protect the Democratic majority,” Trone said in a statement.

Each has an argument to make in their favor.

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Trone, 68, turned to politics after turning his company Total Wine & More into a massive national alcohol retailer. He is so wealthy he was able to spend $13 million of his own money on a failed attempt to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016. He was elected to Congress in 2018 and has represented a district that stretches from Montgomery County to Western Maryland.

Trone has poured more than $20 million already into the race against Alsobrooks, and is a near-constant presence on TV and in social-media feeds. With an expensive general election now expected, Trone has the ability to bring millions to the table. (Though he hinted over the weekend that his capacity to self-fund is not limitless.)

Prince George’s County Executive and U.S. Senate candidate Angela Alsobrooks speaks at a meet-and-greet at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia, Md. on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)
U.S. Rep. David Trone, who is running for the U.S. Senate, participates in a panel about reentry and small businesses at Urban Reads Bookstore and My Mama's Vegan on Feb. 4, 2024. (Taneen Momeni/for the Baltimore Banner)

But Trone, like, Hogan, is an older white businessman.

Alsobrooks, 52, has positioned herself as a better representation of the modern Democratic Party and Maryland as a whole: a Black woman who isn’t wealthy, and who is raising a daughter while helping her aging parents. She’s the type of candidate, her team says, who will excite Democrats to get out the vote in November.

Alsobrooks, a former prosecutor who is now the Prince George’s County executive, released her first commercial this week that reinforces the theme.

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“The average U.S. senator is 64 years old, worth $16 million, and the last time they went to the grocery store? I’ll let you decide,” Alsobrooks says in the ad as a montage of white male faces fills more than half of the screen. “I’m Angela Alsobrooks, and that’s not me.”

While Trone and Alsobrooks had been talking about their experience and leadership styles, and broadly how they’d support Democratic values, they’re now more likely going to spend time on national issues like abortion, Supreme Court appointments and former president — and likely Republican nominee — Donald Trump.

The Democrats are burnishing their record on reproductive rights, to counteract the fear that Hogan and Republicans would push a national abortion ban.

Already, Alsobrooks and Trone were drawing a contrast against one another. Alsobrooks pointed out that Trone donated to anti-abortion Republicans; Trone has said those donations were necessary to make sure he could advocate for his wine stores in states run by Republicans.

Both are likely to remind Maryland voters that abortion will be on their ballot this fall, in the form of a state constitutional amendment to guarantee reproductive choice.

The rhetoric from both on abortion ratcheted up on Wednesday, when Hogan said in a national interview that he won’t support a national abortion ban.

While opposed personally, “I’m not going to take away that right for others to make that decision,” Hogan told CNN’s Dana Bash.

In response, Alsobrooks reiterated her promise to “fight to abolish the filibuster and codify abortion rights.” Trone said in a statement that “Mitch McConnell didn’t hand-pick Larry Hogan to run for Senate because he’s a moderate. Larry Hogan has wanted to ban abortion for 45 years” — a reference to statements made by Hogan in the early 1980s.

While Democrats are taking Hogan seriously as an opponent, the fact remains that most pundits and prognosticators still think that Democrats have an advantage. Just not as much of an advantage as before, when they thought the Democratic nominee would face a lesser-funded, lesser-known Republican.

With Hogan’s entrance into the race, a variety of election prediction websites changed their outlook on Maryland from a lock for Democrats to a “likely” Democratic win, including Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“What it comes down to is: Is he the favorite to win? No,” said the University of Virginia’s J. Miles Coleman. “Are his chances zero? No.”

“Any time you have a candidate of that caliber getting into a race like this, yes, it’s uphill, but you have to afford him some level of respect,” Coleman said. “He’s not just some dude running for office.”

Former Gov. Larry Hogan, shown in the State House in 2022 near the end of his second term, has shaken up the race for Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat after announcing his candidacy last week. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Once the Democratic nominee is picked, expect money and attention to flow into the race from across the country.

Already, both the national Democratic and Republican Senate campaign committees are engaged in the race — with the Republicans touting Hogan’s entrance and the Democrats smashing the Republican fear button about Hogan.

“A vote for Republican Larry Hogan is a vote to make Mitch McConnell Majority Leader and turn the Senate over to Republicans so they can pass a national abortion ban,” read a statement from Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Maeve Coyle, just hours after Hogan’s announcement. “Democrats have won every statewide federal election in Maryland for 44 years and 2024 will be no different.”

And while Alsobrooks and Trone have both kept up a steady calendar of campaign events, they rarely have engaged directly. That could change in a few weeks, when they’re both scheduled to attend a forum sponsored by Democratic groups in Montgomery County.

It’s not clear where either of the Democrats would stack up against Hogan. Last fall — when Hogan appeared unlikely to join the race — a poll from Blended Public Affairs and Annapolis lobbying firm Perry, White, Ross & Jacobsen LLC questioned voters about potential matchups.

That poll found Trone ahead of Hogan, 49%-34%, and Alsobrooks trailing Hogan, 42% to 36%.

Several months later, either of those matchups could be the reality. With the new national attention to the race, plenty of people are going to want to know the state of the race, Eberly said.

“We’re going to have polling on the Senate race,” he said. Without the Hogan factor, he said, “Nobody would have bothered polling the general election.”

Pamela Wood covers Maryland politics and government. She previously reported for The Baltimore Sun, The Capital and other Maryland newspapers. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, she lives in northern Anne Arundel County.

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