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This Candidate Is Self-Funding More Than Anyone Ever For A Seat In Congress

Maryland congressional candidate David Trone shakes hands outside the Glenmont Metro station in Silver Spring, Md., on Thursday morning.
Jessica Taylor
Maryland congressional candidate David Trone shakes hands outside the Glenmont Metro station in Silver Spring, Md., on Thursday morning.

Wine retailer David Trone is pouring $12.4 million of his own money into his campaign for a Maryland congressional district — the most ever from a self-financing House candidate.

Ahead of the Democratic primary on Tuesday for this suburban Washington, D.C., seat, his decision to entirely self-fund his race with such an exorbitant investment is fueling a debate over money in politics and whether bankrolling your campaign — much like a certain GOP presidential front-runner has done — is a positive or a negative.

A Risky, Expensive Investment

Trone founded the Total Wine & More superstores. He says win or lose, he doesn't regret the decision to put so much of his own personal wealth on the line in a crowded primary for this rare open seat.

"We knew it would be very expensive. We're not surprised by what it cost at all. We anticipated that, and it was a thoughtful choice my wife and I made," Trone told NPR as he was campaigning outside the Glenmont Metro station in Silver Spring, Md., earlier this week. "It was the right decision to take no money from anybody."

The first-time candidate says the gamble to use his own cash was a necessary one for him to be competitive in a nine-person race where there are few policy differences between candidates in the firmly liberal district. He especially needed to get parity with his better-known top rivals: former local TV anchor Kathleen Matthews and state Sen. Jamie Raskin, both of whom have been visible in the region for years and enjoy high name recognition. And while most candidates had been campaigning for several months for the seat, he only threw his hat in the ring in January of this year.

Thanks to his multi-million-dollar cash infusion — more than a single candidate has spent even in the state's hotly contested Democratic Senate primary — Trone's been blanketing the expensive D.C. media market to raise his own profile. His slickly produced ads on radio and TV detail his rise from the struggling Pennsylvania farm that went bankrupt to co-founding the largest privately owned beer, wine and spirits retailer in the country.

The Democratic Donald Trump?

Trone is taking some contribution, but not more than $10 (his website blocks anything larger). He can't recoup any of the money he's given his campaign either, because it's not a loan; many self-financing candidates eventually repay themselves.

He argues that refusing donations is what separates him from another wealthy businessman who's bankrolling his campaign: Donald Trump. Trone points out that Trump is in fact accepting donations for his White House bid — about $9.5 million so far.

And while Trump's main selling point is also his business acumen, Trone says unlike the bombastic real estate mogul, he didn't "start 10 feet from home plate," alluding to the financial help the Republican got from his own father as he was starting his career.

So why entirely fund his campaign? Trone said he didn't relish the thought of spending the majority of his time fundraising, even though as a longtime Democratic donor he argued it wouldn't have been hard to raise the money he needed. Plus, he says the decision keeps him beholden to no one — a familiar refrain Trump also uses on the campaign trail.

"When you do take money from the lobbyists and the PACs, no matter what you say, they get a couple of extra seats at the table," Trone said, noting he would actually favor public financing for elections. "We'd rather be able to be completely open and listen to both sides of the issues and make a decision that's right for the voters."

"Certainly my opponents have that ability and they've chosen not to do that," he argued, noting his rivals also have deep personal pockets and could have put significant amounts behind their candidacies, too.

The Washington Post pegged the net worth of Kathleen Matthews, who is married to MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews, as somewhere between $22.5 million and $61.3 million as of 2014. She has loaned her campaign $500,000. Trone and his wife's estimated worth is between $17 million and $68.5 million. Raskin and his wife, a deputy Treasury secretary, had assets between $2.8 million and $6.8 million.

In a recent ad, Trone criticizes his opponents for taking money from lobbyists. But in turn they have alleged such boasting is hypocritical given the millions he's donated in the past.

"David Trone's the last person on earth who should attack Kathleen or anyone else on ethics," Matthews' campaign manager Ethan Susseles told Bethesda Magazine. "He built his fortune by spending millions on lobbyists and buying political access. Now he's spending millions trying to buy a congressional seat like it's a fine bottle of wine. It won't fly in this district."

Raskin, who's pointed to his progressive record in Annapolis, has also argued Trone is trying to put a price tag on a seat that isn't for sale.

"Public office isn't something that you buy, it's something that you earn through your devotion to the public good and your service to the community," Raskin said at a debate last month. "I would put my record of public service up against anybody running for Congress in America right now."

How Much Is Too Much To Spend?

Herbert Smith, a professor of political science and director of government relations at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., said that while traditionally self-funding candidates hadn't had much success at the ballot box, Trump's emergence may have changed the narrative this year. And that could benefit Trone.

"I think Trump has validated self-financing as a positive good in this election cycle far more than the historic record would indicate," Smith said. "Whether that plays as well with a Democratic electorate versus a Republican primary electorate, that's what we'll find out Tuesday night."

Trone's investment has certainly helped him become well-known in the region. As he shook hands for over an hour outside the Metro station on Thursday, several stopped him, telling him they recognized him from his commercials.

"You're doing a good job. I'm going to vote for you!" one young man told him, fistbumping the candidate as he headed down the escalator. A woman stopped and asked if he would take a selfie with her.

Muriel Cooper of Silver Spring stopped to shake Trone's hand and said she is leaning toward voting for him. She said she wasn't turned off by the fact that he's spending so much of his own money on the race.

"I think he's an interesting candidate. I know he's financing the campaign himself, which is wonderful if you're able to do that," she said. "I think people are smart enough to look beyond the money. You can't buy my vote."

But others say the oversaturation of the airwaves and nonstop direct mail fliers have turned them off — a complaint that Smith, the political science professor, says he's heard often, too.

Doug Dollemore of Silver Spring, who had already cast his ballot early for Raskin, said the daily barrage of mail pieces had the opposite effect on him.

"I think that your primary campaign was over the top. It was just too much, too often," he said, confronting Trone. "It was like getting a phone call from your girlfriend asking you if you still loved her every 15 minutes."

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.