A competitive contest for the Democratic nomination — and a huge investment by a self-funded candidate — has made the fight for Maryland's 8th Congressional District the most expensive House race in the nation, new data from the Federal Election Commission show.
Candidates competing for the seat, left open by Rep. Chris Van Hollen's decision to run for Senate, have spent nearly $14 million since last year.
While $9 million of that came from a single candidate — Democratic businessman David Trone — the race would be among the priciest even without his money.
The huge sums pouring into the district, home to many top-level officials in the federal government, is notable in part because all of the Democratic candidates have decried the current system of campaign finance and the influence of big money on politics.
"The amount of money raised and spent in this race is truly shocking," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "With this level of spending in the race, all voters can hear is the noise of campaign ads."
In a measure of just how aggressive the race for cash has become, former WJLA anchor and Marriott International executive Kathleen Matthews loaned herself $500,000 this spring, even after raising more than $2 million since launching her campaign last year.
Matthews is married to MSNBC personality Chris Matthews.
The district, which stretches from Montgomery County north into Frederick and Carroll counties, always had the potential to be expensive because it is served by the Washington television market, which charges among the highest ad rates in the nation. Montgomery County has the highest assessed property value in Maryland and its highest median income.
Still, the competitive race in the neighboring 4th Congressional District — which also gets its TV from Washington, and is also an open seat — has not seen the same eye-popping numbers.
In that district, where former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, former Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey, state Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk and others are running for the seat left open by Rep. Donna Edwards' decision to run for Senate, the total spent has been about $2.6 million.
In the 8th District, Trone's campaign is, by far, the largest factor driving the sky-high spending. The co-owner of liquor retailer Total Wine & More raised just $5,620 since he made his late entry into the race in January, but has spent about 90 percent of the $10 million of his own money he has invested — making his name ubiquitous on television and radio.
He also has the potential to become the top self-funding House candidate in history, depending on how one looks at the numbers. Democrat Phil Maloof, a state lawmaker in New Mexico, spent $12.6 million of his own money chasing a House seat in two elections in 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A Trone campaign spokeswoman declined to comment Sunday. Trone himself has argued that self-funding frees him from having to make commitments to donors.
He took out a full page ad in The Washington Post recently to make his case.
"The average member of Congress spends 60 percent of his or her time raising money," Trone wrote."The system is broken when representatives spend more time keeping their job than doing the one they were elected to do."
Trone's opponents have taken the opposite view.
"You are trying to buy a congressional seat, as if it's a fine bottle of wine," Matthews wrote in an "open letter" to Trone released to reporters last week. "It is up to voters to decide how they feel about the $9.1 million you have already spent in this campaign."
Matthews has spent $2.2 million.
Marshall Cohen, campaign manager for state Sen. Jamie Raskin, said: "Jamie trusts Maryland Democrats to ignore millions of dollars in TV ads and know the difference between empty rhetoric and a proven record of results."
Raskin has spent $1.2 million.
Spending in the 8th District becomes even more impressive when the circumstances behind some of the other pricey districts are examined.
Ohio's 8th Congressional District, for example, is home to former Republican House Speaker John Boehner, whose spending is included in the analysis, even though he stepped down last year.
Illinois' 18th Congressional District ranks high on the list because it includes all the spending from a special election last year after former Rep. Aaron Schock resigned.
The data comes from Maryland's pre-primary report, which was filed Thursday night. While many states have already voted for a presidential candidate, some conduct congressional primaries later in the year, and so it is possible other districts could surpass Maryland's 8th District as their elections approach.
The analysis does not include about $1.8 million that Van Hollen transfered from his House account to his Senate campaign.
The money in Maryland — spent mostly by Trone, Matthews and Raskin — has effectively drowned out other candidates who otherwise might have received more notice. Those include Del. Kumar Barve, a former majority leader in the House of Delegates who now chairs the powerful Environment and Transportation Committee, and Will Jawando, a former aide in the Obama administration, and Joel Rubin, a former State Department official.
"Trone's near-record personal spending has certainly made it more difficult for the non-millionaires in this race to get through," said Rubin, who now runs a foreign policy consulting firm.
"I have confidence that voters are smart enough to elect their next Congress person because of their ideas and their track record."
Rubin has spent just more than $216,000.
Top House races
District // Amount spent
Maryland's 8th: $13.8M
Ohio's 8th: $8.2M
Illinois' 18th: $4.9M
Mississippi's 1st: $4.3M
Illinois' 10th: $4.3M
Source: Sun analysis of FEC data.