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The Maryland Senate Race Is a Test of Both Parties’ Viability

It looks as if there’s a shift afoot in the Old Line State’s Democratic party; will it pay off?

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Credit: Maryland GovPics

Well, you have hits and misses. I was fairly well persuaded that, despite inclement polls, Democratic Rep. David Trone of Maryland would pull out a victory over Angela Alsobrooks, the executive of Prince George’s County. Trone is fabulously wealthy, for one thing, and could in large part self-fund his campaign; indeed, he practically bought his way around the Maryland machine’s usual cursus honorum by self-funding a 2018 congressional run to replace the retiring John Delaney. (This was his second attempt; his unsuccessful 2016 congressional run was the most expensive self-funded race in the record books at the time.) For another, he has federal legislative experience. Alsobrooks has served as state’s attorney for PG County, as executive for the same, and—that’s it.

So far as ideology or policy goes, Trone is a bog-standard Maryland Democrat; this was another point in his favor, to my mind. He can mouth the various pieties about “justice reform” and the environment without seeming particularly radical; the comfortable suburban bobos don’t have to worry about a liquor store magnate doing anything too crazy against the Interests. It’s that warm, comforting mush of left-flavored rhetoric and establishment politics that is the ancient and honorable specialty of Democratic machine states. When Steny Hoyer’s office sends me emails, they are addressed to “Mx. Russo,” but I’m not too worried that he’s going to do anything much more radical than fiddling with the corporate income tax. This is the sweet spot for Marylanders; if the current occupant of the White House is any indicator, it’s the sweet spot for roughly half of voting Americans.

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Yet Trone lost. (And I was wrong.) What happened?

A few things. First, Trone was too slow out of the gate. The state party more or less left him out to dry; Reps. Steny Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen, along with Gov. Wes Moore, endorsed Alsobrooks early, before Trone even entered the race. (One wonders whether there was some lingering resentment against the arriviste who bought his way into Congress instead of hacking the traditional state office circuit first.) Trone then did something you probably should not do in a state that is 30 percent black: He uttered a slur on the record in the House of Representatives. It was not a slur known to your humble correspondent, who had a sheltered upbringing, but it was known to enough of the listening and reading public that there was an uproar. 

Alsobrooks is relatively inexperienced. PG County is the district with the third highest crime rate in Maryland, after the abject Baltimore City and the immediately adjoining Baltimore County. She is, however, a black woman, and would be the first black female senator from Maryland; the coverage of her primary victory emphasized this point. One is tempted to wonder whether, in conjunction with the 2020 victory for Moore—the state’s first black governor, who had held no prior political office—Alsobrooks’s nomination shows the ascendency of a particular kind of identity politics over the traditional interest-jockeying and influence-peddling of the Old Line State’s machine. (You look at the rogues’ gallery of Maryland politicos of yesteryear and think, they were a sort of solution, those people.)

The question is whether this can carry the whole state. Moore faced a weak Republican opponent who, so far from being the Chamber of Commerce archetype for Republican success in Maryland, was entangled in Donald Trump’s litigation about the 2020 election. Alsobrooks will face Larry Hogan, the highly popular two-term-limited former governor. Hogan, by luck or craft, is in the goldilocks zone for a Maryland Republican: He was a prominent but not frothing critic of Trump, which will play well in the country clubs of the Montgomery and Howard County suburbs; yet he also has a tacit but clear detente with the former president and current nominee, which will keep the more hardline rural portions of the state onside. Even better, he was a rather good governor in the only way that is both measurable and non-partisan: The state ran a surplus under his administration. 

He’s also a talented retail politician: rotund (what’s the point of a skinny pol?), gregarious, a self-made man and a cancer survivor (people seem to care about that sort of thing). There are a number of pictures of Alsobrooks and Hogan grinning and making friendly together at various official events—it will be difficult for Alsobrooks to paint him as a monster without looking very silly. It will also be difficult for her to claim achievements from the first part of her executive term without Hogan being able to play for a slice of the kudos. This is, to your humble correspondent’s mind, an unenviable rhetorical position.

Maryland is always a tough row to hoe for a Republican, so victory is far from assured. The initial polling shows Alsobrooks with an edge on Hogan. Yet this is not a cupcake match. If Hogan can pull it out, it will show that race and gender politics gambits are not invincible, and that a big-tent Republican party can be competitive in even some blue states. If he can’t, it will show that the malign transformation of even once-moderate, establishment Democratic apparatuses is unlikely to be curbed any time soon.