The race for Rep. John Delaney’s open seat in the House will be the most closely watched congressional contest in Maryland next year.
It’s also shaping up to be one of the nation’s most expensive.
Two wealthy candidates running for the state’s 6th Congressional District — Democrat David Trone and Republican Amie Hoeber — have both spent millions of their own money in previous campaigns and are now competing in a crowded race that may mark their last opportunity to claim a House seat for years.
Add to that one of the nation’s most expensive media markets and a midterm election that may be defined more by President Donald J. Trump than the candidates themselves, and analysts see the potential for sticker shock.
“My guess is you’ll see a lot of money go in there because I think it’ll be a big priority” for both parties, said Brad Bannon, a Democratic political consultant.
Trone, co-owner of a national liquor retailer, spent more than $14 million in his bid for the neighboring 8th Congressional District last year — a sum that helped to make the race the most expensive House contest in the nation in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The nonpartisan group said Trone gave more to his campaign than any other self-funded candidate except Trump.
By comparison, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, spent $11.5 million to run a successful statewide campaign in the same election cycle.
That kind of money alone could put Maryland’s 6th District on a list of the most expensive House contests. But this year Trone isn’t the only candidate in the race with deep pockets. Hoeber’s husband, a former communications executive, contributed $3.2 million to a super PAC that supported her campaign for the 6th District last year when she ran against Delaney.
Republicans hope the Montgomery County-based district wil be their best opportunity in years to capture a House seat in Maryland. Delaney, who is leaving Congress to pursue a presidential campaign, won re-election by less than 2 percentage points in the 2014 midterm election. At least five Democrats and two Republicans have started raising money for the June 26 primary.
GOP expectations in the district have been dimmed somewhat by national polling and a number of special elections in which Democrats have turned out in large numbers. Open-seat House contests tend to be driven more by national politics than the candidates themselves, and Trump remains unpopular in Maryland.
Trone, who lost the 8th District nomination to fellow Democrat Rep. Jamie Raskin last year despite blasting the airwaves with ads, has spent $735,242 since entering the 6th District race in August. That’s nearly as much as Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, spent in the two years leading up to the 2016 election, for instance.
Not surprisingly, neither candidate was eager to discuss how much money they would pour into their campaign.
“David believes the issue with money in politics is that narrow special interests use money to distort policy decisions,” Alex Koren, a Trone campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “The fact that David does not rely on contributions from PACs or lobbyists will give him the independence all members of Congress should have to vote for what’s best for the country and their constituents.”
Hoeber, who worked for the Pentagon during the Reagan administration, has taken a similar position.
“It’s safe to say she’s going to invest personal funds, but I don’t know the amount,” said Paul Ellington, a campaign consultant for Hoeber. “Amie believes that if she expects others to donate she has to put some skin in the game.”
Damon Effingham, acting director of Common Cause Maryland, said his group worries that self-funders can drown out other voices in a race.
“This doesn’t solve the problem of the wealthy having far too much influence on our campaigns. It’s just the wealthy people cutting out the middleman,” Effingham said. “Without some kind of intervention, we’re going to end up with a system where only the independently wealthy can run.”
Running, though, is different from winning and a big war chest doesn’t guarantee victory. Raskin beat Trone in the 8th District Democratic primary by spending $2.2 million.
Self-funding candidates can become susceptible to criticism that they’re attempting to buy a seat.
“So many people I meet with talk about how Congress is out of touch, and that is not surprising because we have a system where the focus is on the size of your bank account versus what you are going to do for the citizens you represent,” Del. Aruna Miller, a Montgomery County Democrat running for the 6th District seat, said in a statement.
“Maryland voters have shown in recent elections they value experience and proven leadership versus the number of dollars a candidate spends on a campaign.”
Hoeber, a consultant, took an unusual approach to her campaign finances last year that prompted Delaney to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. Maryland USA, a super PAC funded almost entirely by Hoeber's husband, invested about $3.2 million in the race. Hoeber is married to Mark Epstein, a former executive at telecommunications giant Qualcomm.
Super PACs may raise and spend unlimited funds, but they are barred from directly coordinating with a campaign. That prohibition is in place to ensure that candidates don’t use super PACs to skirt donation limits that exist for candidates. Critics questioned whether an entity funded by a candidate’s spouse could truly remain independent of her campaign for Congress.
The FEC does not disclose whether it is reviewing a complaint until that investigation is closed.
It’s not clear why Hoeber and Epstein took the approach or whether they will do so again. Super PACs must pay more for advertising than candidates, so routing the family’s wealth through that entity put the campaign at a disadvantage. Hoeber told Bethesda Magazine in October that Epstein would “probably not” invest in a super PAC to support her again.
Ellington, Hoeber’s consultant, said he didn’t have any knowledge of a similar plan this year.
Delaney, a former banker, also poured millions of his own money into his campaigns, though he was also a prodigious fundraiser — especially in his first congressional race in 2012.
Matt Mossburg, a former state lawmaker running for the Republican nomination in the 6th, said he isn’t concerned about the money Hoeber has the potential to spend — especially in the primary. The Frederick man, who has made addressing the opioid epidemic a centerpiece of his campaign, said he believes candidates can use social media to mitigate financial disadvantages.
“I’m not sweating it,” Mossburg said. “Money can only buy so much goodwill.”