Democratic Maryland Senate Primary Grows Contentious with Early Voting Underway

Craig Hudson for The Washington Post
Top: Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) greets a voter in Randallstown, Md., on Friday.
Bottom: Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) greets his opponent’s campaign volunteers in Laurel, Md., on Friday.

Voters on the bus chartered by Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) rolled deep into his opponent’s home turf Friday in Bowie, past a cardboard cutout of Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks’s profile towering over a sea of campaign signs.

“Thank you, ma’am. Thank you for coming out,” Trone said, welcoming the senior citizens arriving to an early voting site in the city’s gymnasium. A campaign staffer retrieved a woman’s collapsed walker and opened it, setting it on the sidewalk so that she could get to the polls.

A day before, Alsobrooks (D) had line danced with supporters outside the same gym, noting the historic potential of her candidacy as early voting began in the most expensive political race in state history. The once-overlooked U.S. Senate contest catapulted to national prominence with the surprise entrance of a formidable Republican opponent, the popular former governor Larry Hogan.

Whomever emerges victorious from the increasingly contentious primary battle on May 14 will carry the weight of protecting Maryland’s reliably Democratic seat against an onslaught of spending from Republicans who recruited Hogan into what’s now among a handful of races that could tip the balance of power in the Senate.

With days remaining to sway voters, the race is increasingly barbed.

Attack ads have started to proliferate. Trone has already poured more than $54 million of his personal fortune into the race, outspending Alsobrooks 10-to-1 and saturating airwaves across the state for months.

A political action committee called Women Vote put nearly $1.5 million starting Saturday behind an ad airing in Baltimore that criticizes Trone’s business giving political contributions to Republicans who oppose abortion – a criticism Alsobrooks frequently leveled in forums. (Trone rebuts it with his high rating from Planned Parenthood and financial support of a western Maryland abortion clinic.) He was the first to go negative, airing ads last weekend with leaders from Prince George’s who sided with him – and later editing it to remove a surrogate’s comment that suggested Alsobrooks needed “training wheels.”

The pair top a crowded field and have few policy disagreements, offering Democratic voters a choice largely between identity and style – and the likelihood of beating Republicans in November.

“They both have great records, and they’re both great people,” voter Terry Dorsey, 67, of Nottingham, said outside a Baltimore County early voting center last week. But she “wants to make sure the Democrats can maintain the majority” and decided to cast a ballot for Trone because she thought “he can beat Hogan.”

Diane Beal-Tydings, also 67, said outside Prince George’s that having a Black woman in the Senate was critical and cast a vote for Alsobrooks, who is Black.

“Only we know what we go through,” Beal-Tydings said. “She’s a role model for those young kids coming up because they can see: If she can do it, I can do it, too.”

Alsobrooks, who could be the first Black person that racially diverse Maryland sends to the Senate and the only woman in the congressional delegation, built an enviable battalion of the state’s top Democrats. Trone, the multimillionaire owner of Total Wine & More who has shunned corporate donors and funded his own campaign, secured the backing of influential labor unions and many congressional colleagues, state leaders and Prince George’s County officials. He built an early lead in polls before she went up on TV in earnest.

In recent days, Trone faced backlash for minimizing her supporters in an NBC 4 interview after characterizing Prince George’s officials who endorsed Alsobrooks as “low-level.”

“By calling a majority of the County Council, seven of our eight State Senators, our State Treasurer, and a sitting member of the U.S. Congress ‘low level people,’ David Trone has insulted every man, woman, and child that calls Prince George’s County home,” six council members said in a statement Saturday morning. “We may not be a billionaire liquor store owner like you, but you’re going to find out that the nearly 1 million residents that call Prince George’s County home will play a decisive role in electing our next U.S. Senator.”

Standing in the bed of a pickup truck Thursday outside the City of Bowie Gymnasium, Alsobrooks laid out the stakes of the race – a Martin Luther King Jr. mural to her left as supporters cheered and hoorahed.

“We do know that the majority in the Senate of the United States, keeping that in Democratic hands, could not be any more important than it is at this moment,” she said, adding that the future of abortion access, LGBTQ+ rights, voting rights and democracy are on the line. So is representation, she noted.

“Half of the people who are here this evening don’t have a voice in our delegation,” she said. “We have 10 people in our delegation who are extremely talented, and all 10 are men. We do not have a single woman. … Every single one of us here ought to be able to see ourselves in the Senate.”

Michaela Graham, a 23-year-old second-grade teacher from Bowie, cast a vote for Alsobrooks and said an endorsement from veteran Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) assured her that the county executive was a solid choice. A scholarship program Hoyer championed has helped Graham reduce her student loans, she said.

The next day, Trone was a little further north, outside the Beltsville Senior Activity Center in Laurel, Md., giving interviews and talking about how Hogan is “the elephant in the room.”

“Voters want to hear about message: What do you stand for? That’s what we’ve been trying to talk about,” he said, rattling off education, addiction and mental health among his top issues. “We cannot let Maryland be the reason we lose the United States Senate.”

Gabriel Njinimb0t, a Democrat originally from Cameroon challenging incumbent Rep. Glenn Ivey (D), who endorsed Alsbrooks, parked his campaign truck and walked over to Trone. “I think you got this,” he said. Trone launched into an explanation of how much outreach his team had done into the African diaspora community and other often-overlooked constituencies, then spotted cars pulling in the far entrance and called out to a volunteer.

“Is someone over there grabbing them coming in that way?” he asked. “We’ve got to make sure we got every line of fire covered.”

Meanwhile, the Democrats’ presumed Republican opponent, Hogan, hosted hundreds at a fundraiser and rally at a Davidsonville, Md., farm Saturday afternoon. His campaign bus with the slogan “Send a message to Washington!” was parked beside a barn as a live band and open bar greeted supporters.

Hogan took the stage, bopping his microphone in time with the lyrics to “Stuck in the Middle with You” before launching into a stump speech about how his wife, Yumi, told him he’d regret not stepping up when he thinks he could make a difference – and that he’s so fed up with politics that he’s yelling at the TV at home.

“I’m walking around the crowd, and some of you are saying, ‘Wow, I had no idea you were running for United States Senate,’” he said to laughs, then deadpanned: “I had no idea either.”

In an interview afterward, Hogan declined to say who he’d rather face in November.

“Look, I’m not running against either of those two potential candidates,” Hogan said. “I’m running against the broken politics and the system in Washington. I’m not running for one party or against one party. It doesn’t matter to me who the candidate is – we’re going to make the case and go out and talk about the issues.”

Early voters Judy Taylor and her husband, David, both 74, said their biggest concern this cycle is ensuring democracy survives.

“We need politicians who obey the rules of the laws of the country,” David Taylor said Thursday outside the Randallstown Community Center in Baltimore County. His wife agreed, particularly in the presidential contest. “I think our democracy is at risk, and I want some who will abide by the Constitution,” she said.

The couple, both registered Democrats, said they would vote for Trone in the primary because they like his voting record in Congress and said his views are in line with theirs. But both said they might vote for Hogan in November.

“I would vote for him because of his record in the state,” David Taylor said. “He was a really good governor.” Judy Taylor said she likes Hogan and would also “probably” vote for him but is hesitant. She said she doesn’t want Republicans to gain control of the Senate.

Erin Cox/The Washington Post
Former Maryland governor Larry Hogan (R) campaigns for U.S. Senate at a fundraiser in Davidsonville, Md., on Saturday.